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Cat and Mouse 

by Ed Symkus

Last things first. I was disappointed with the ending of this film. Without giving anything away, I'll just say it tries way too hard. Director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out) has a flair for plot twists, but this time out he doesn't quite make it work.

Even though a good ending is about the most important part of a film, I'll still go out on a limb with a recommendation for this one. The movie has so much going for it, as far as acting and other (much cooler) plot twists and dazzling photography and, for the most part, a story we haven't seen before, I think I'll let Donaldson and his battery of writers (always a hint that something's going to be less than smooth) get away with a copout of a cap-off.

The recruit of the title is James Clayton (Scottish actor Colin Farrell, with a good, solid American accent) -- a bartender who happens to be a computer wizard with some groundbreaking new ideas. The man trying to recruit him isn't from Dell or Apple or anyplace like that; he's from that furtive little bunch of spooks known as the CIA (what odd timing that this is coming out soon after Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). And that man calls himself Walter Burke (Al Pacino, fading in and out of some unidentifiable American accent or accents).

The film is introduced in flashy manner with a wordless story about the long-ago disappearance and (most likely) death of Clayton's father under mysterious circumstances in Peru. References are made to Clayton's anger and confusion about the event throughout the film, but many other stories are forthcoming, and one of the weak links here is that too much time is spent on this detail before it just fritters away.

What this is mostly about is what happens to the young up-and-comers who people like Burke go out and try to recruit for the agency. There are peeks at both the physical and mental workouts at the remote training facility known as "the farm," and there's a feel for the camaraderie that develops between these men and women who are ready to devote their lives to the good side of the good-versus-evil struggle.

Burke is the senior trainer, and Pacino plays him with a low-level intensity, rarely raising his voice, always aware of everything going on around him. The ridiculously talented journeyman actor once again makes the whole thing look easy. But watch out, here comes Colin Farrell. Already seen to excellent effect in the otherwise dreary Hart's War and having neatly stolen scenes from Tom Cruise in the terrific Minority Report, here he's got a big bunch of screen presence, including a great smile, a hint of innocence and an equal share of vulnerability and determination. And unlike the way Pacino plays most of it, Farrell's intensity level, from his black eyes alone, sometimes shoots way up there.

When the two of them are alone together, they and Donaldson have worked some screen magic by having Pacino do his slow, deliberate talk, and having Farrell just sit there, listening and reacting.

But there's not an overabundance of talking and listening. In the latter stages of the film, Donaldson has things revved up. The story turns into a cat-and-mouse game in which no one -- audience and characters included -- is exactly sure which animal is which. It's especially hard to tell what's going on between Farrell and his love interest, Layla (Bridget Moynihan), who has eyes that are impossible to read.

But even before the craziness of the last reel, even before the central story gets cooking, Donaldson energizes the film with fast editing, cameras floating through the air and multiple banks of video screens to watch. He's a director who likes to have his way with lots of high-tech visuals, and in this case, they start with the opening credits.

It really is a pity that Donaldson couldn't finish stronger on this one. Despite that, all the preceding twists and turns are more than enough to make this an armrest-gripper. And it's going to be a big help in pushing Colin Farrell (next up in Daredevil) further along on his rise to stardom.

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