In The Recruit (opening Jan. 31), a CIA thriller that plays some very tricky and entertaining spy games, Colin Farrell, after stealing scenes from Tom Cruise in ''Minority Report,'' shoots across the screen with the authority of a sleek bullet. The new-era macho dude, typified by Russell Crowe, is equal parts brawn and brains, and Farrell, with his purposeful eyebrows and his thatch of hair sculpted to look nearly aerodynamic, has that same squinty yet controlled intensity. He's so black Irish he's practically art-designed, and in ''The Recruit'' he stares out at the world with a moody, combative cool that makes paranoia seem hip.
His James Clayton, an MIT-trained computer wizard, is recruited by a CIA officer named Walter Burke (Al Pacino) to become an agent-in-training at the Farm, a kind of mind-warp version of boot camp in which the threat of surveillance is a way of life. Once there, Clayton and his fellow spook trainees, including the comely Layla (Bridget Moynahan), learn to plant bugs, withstand torture, and conduct interrogations. More than that, they learn that ''nothing is what it seems.'' When is a situation a setup? A comrade an enemy? A game deadly real?
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. In ways that I won't reveal, the film counts on our very knowledge of espionage clichés to soften us up for the kill. Graduating into the ranks of the ''NOC'' elite, Clayton goes undercover at CIA headquarters at Langley, where he's assigned to get the goods on Layla by drawing her into an affair. According to Burke, she's a double agent who is out to steal a computer virus that could freeze the U.S. defense system, and the Langley scenes, as staged by director Roger Donaldson, have a crisp fluorescent tension.
The Pacino-as-grizzled-mentor movie (''Donnie Brasco'') is, at this point, practically a genre unto itself. Al, sporting a shock of hair that looks about as real as Rip Taylor's, slices the ham with plummy dexterity, and he speaks in one of his mad gravelly drawls, setting it up for Farrell to underplay, which the younger actor does beautifully, cueing us to the tiniest tremors of suspicion and fear. Clayton, navigating a Chinese box of deception, must finally act as his own authority, and that's what Farrell does too. In ''The Recruit,'' he becomes a star not by decree but by command.