When James Clayton (Colin Farrell) was young his father was killed in 1990 in a Peruvian plane crash for unknown reasons. In college, Clayton has computer interests and analytical skills that when he goes job hunting are sought by industry and government. A software program he has helped developed is called "Spartacus". It can hijack nearby computers through a wireless network. Senior Central Intelligence Agency instructor Walter Burke (Al Pacino) attracts Clayton's interest in the agency by saying that his father worked for the agency.
He starts being evaluated and trained at the Farm, a CIA training facility, in skills that would be needed by agents. He comes in contact with another trainee, Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan). During one of the exercises Clayton and Moore are kidnapped. He is tortured by foreign speaking men that say Moore is also being tortured. The torture stops when Clayton is about to give up identities of people associated with the farm. The program trainees have seen the torture exercise Clayton was subjected to on closed-circuit television. The trainees are cautioned that the lesson to be learned from it is that they should not be caught.
Burke makes contact with Clayton and shares with him his suspicion that Moore is a sleeper and that Burke is hoping the friendship between Clayton and Moore can be used to catch her. Clayton finds that she is removing the software program in pieces. Burke arranges for Clayton to work at CIA Headquarters to monitor Moore. Clayton finds that Moore is taking the software offsite on a USB flash drive hidden in a secret compartment in her coffee pot.
Clayton watches Layla as she passes a note to her contact, and then he follows the contact through Union Station. When the contact fires at Clayton, shots are returned that kill him. Clayton finds out that the contact is Zack (Gabriel Macht), another trainee and NOC. Clayton pursues Moore and confronts her about what he knows is going on. Moore tells him that she is a CIA agent assigned to see if the software she sought could be removed from Headquarters. Clayton is confused but eventually accepts what Moore has said.
Clayton reports back to Burke, who congratulates Clayton on passing the final test. Clayton responds by demanding to know why Zack was killed. Burke tries to pass off the killing as staged since Clayton's gun was loaded with blanks. Clayton fires his gun at the back window of the car to verify what Burke has said and when the window bursts Clayton knows that Burke is lying. Burke chases Clayton through an abandoned building, and boasts that he organized the scheme to sell the virus for $3 million.
Clayton escapes long enough to set up a laptop and load the "Spartacus" software with the intent to broadcast Burke's confession to the CIA. When the CIA comes to arrest Clayton for Zack's death, Burke, believing that he is finally caught, rails about his dissatisfaction with his career. The CIA agents conclude that Burke is the real traitor and instruct the officers on site to target him instead. Burke realizes too late that Clayton did not have the time to set up the "Spartacus" software and that the agents were targeting Clayton until he made his speech. Having incriminated himself, he reiterates that he was an excellent recruiter, having correctly determined that Clayton was CIA material. He then draws his gun, forcing the CIA to shoot and kill him. Moore consoles Clayton before he rides back with the CIA agents for debriefing. In the van, Assistant Director of Operations Dennis Slayne (Karl Pruner) makes a comment suggesting that Clayton's father was a NOC agent when he died, and Clayton now realizes that some of Burke's statements had in fact been true. An ending scene shows the CIA Memorial Wall honoring dead agents shows that in 1990 when Clayton's father died there was only one star.Al Pacino as Walter Burke
Colin Farrell as James Douglas Clayton
Bridget Moynahan as Layla Moore
Gabriel Macht as Zack
Kenneth Mitchell as Alan
Karl Pruner as Dennis Slayne
The film was produced by Gary Barber's and Roger Birnbaum's production company Spyglass Entertainment, with financial support from Disney's Touchstone Pictures and German film financing company Epsilon Motion Pictures (which was owned by the Kirch Group at the time). It was mainly filmed in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada, with some landmark scenes, such as that from the Iwo Jima Memorial by the Arlington National Cemetery, shot in and around Washington, D.C.
Reviews of the film were mixed. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 43% based on 163 reviews with, an average rating of 5.5 out of 10. The site's consensus states: "This polished thriller is engaging until it takes one twist too many into the predictable." Metacritic gave it an average score of 56 out of 100 from the 36 reviews it collected.
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a positive review, with a B+ score. He wrote, "From the get-go, The Recruit is one of those thrillers that delights in pulling the rug out from under you, only to find another rug below that." Carla Meyer of San Francisco Chronicle also gave a positive review to the film, stating, "Pacino and Farrell bring a wary curiosity to their early scenes, with Farrell displaying a palpable hunger for praise and Pacino a corresponding mastery of how to hook somebody by parceling out compliments. They're a swarthier version of Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in Spy Game -- only The Recruit is more about mind games."
Todd McCarthy of Variety stated, "The whole picture may be hokey, but the first part is agreeably so, the second part not. At the very least, one comes away with a new appreciation of the difficulty of interoffice romance at the CIA." Mike Clark of USA Today gave a mixed review to the film, stating, "Nothing is ever what it seems, but still, nothing's very compelling in The Recruit, a less-than-middling melodrama whose subject matter and talent never click as much as its credits portend."
In 2009, the movie was reviewed by new CIA employees, who wrote that although "everyone in the Agency believes the movie is ridiculous", the movie is "entertaining" and that "all of the covert service trainees watched the film on the bus going into training" for "comic relief".
The film was released on January 31, 2003, and earned $16,302,063 in its first weekend. Its final gross is $52,802,140 in the United States and $48,389,744 internationally, for a total of $101,191,884.