Dir: Roger Donaldson. US. 2003. 115mins.

Ireland's Colin Farrell proves that he has warranted Hollywood's grooming in The Recruit, a slick, improbable thriller driven by his charismatic movie star presence which even puts Al Pacino in the shade. Farrell has already demonstrated his considerable talent in Tigerland, Hart's War and Minority Report, but The Recruit, in which he plays a computer whizzkid recruited to train as a CIA operative, is his coming-of-age film as a star. The film grossed $16.5m over the weekend in North America from 2,376 sites, giving the actor a strong start to a year which will see him in no less than five further films - Daredevil, Phone Booth, S.W.A.T., Veronica Guerin and Intermission. It's just a matter of time before Farrell will be opening movies.

Roger Donaldson, whose credits include Dante's Peak, Species, No Way Out and Cocktail, has become somewhat of a specialist at crafting cheesy entertainments and for all its professed insight into the murky world of CIA training, The Recruit is full-fat cheese. For that very reason, box office returns will be solid: in the US, it is entertaining enough to shine in the frosty first two months of the year, while overseas, audiences will relish its fun factor in a season of heavyweight Oscar contenders. In ancillary markets, it is worth its weight in gold.

The film was originally called The Farm - the nickname for the training facility where CIA wannabes are put through their paces, Farrell is James Clayton, a 25 year-old still haunted by the mysterious death of his father in a plane crash 13 years earlier. When approached by Walter Burke (Pacino) to train for the agency, he jumps at the chance not only to find out more information about his father, who he thinks was an agent, but also because he is drawn by Burke's paternal assuredness.

Clayton undergoes weeks of gruelling training with fellow trainees including the beautiful Layla (Moynahan) and smartass Zach (Macht). Burke teaches them to trust no-one, learn how to lie and survive life-threatening situations. But when Clayton fails one of the 'tests' under duress, he is discharged from the Farm.

But only then is he approached by Burke for a special assignment - to uncover Layla, now moved full-time to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as a double agent. According to Burke, Layla is smuggling a lethal computer programme out of Langley. Clayton agrees to take on a low-level computer job at Langley to catch her in the act.

The twists, turns and abundance of red herrings prove as frustrating as they are surprising. Audiences can guess all they like, but, as in No Way Out, the climactic revelations are unexpected and ludicrous. The plot only takes off once the training has finished - some half way into the film - making for a convoluted two-part structure which dilutes the tension.

Pacino chews the wintry scenery with his now-customary ferocity, while Moynahan - who played Ben Affleck's love interest in The Sum Of All Fears and Mr Big's wife Natasha on TV hit Sex And The City - is an icy and effective foil for Farrell's brooding charm. On the production side, there are noteworthy contributions from cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and production designer Andrew McAlpine who, between them, craft an austere and chilly world for the spy games to play out in.

Prod cos: Touchstone Pictures, Spyglass Entertainment
US dist: Buena Vista
Int'l dist: BVI/Spyglass
Exec prods: Jonathan Glickman, Ric Kidney
Prods: Roger Birnbaum, Jeff Apple, Gary Barber
Scr: Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer, Mitch Glazer
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Prod des: Andrew McAlpine
Ed: David Rosenbloom
Music: Klaus Badelt
Main cast: Al Pacino, Colin Farrell, Bridget Moynahan, Gabriel Macht, Mike Realba, Dom Fiore