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The Ending Of The Recruit Explained

Like many spy thrillers, 2003's The Recruit is all about deception and spy craft, featuring everyone's favorite security apparatus, the Central intelligence Agency. But, despite a common misconception, being a spy isn't all just kicking down doors and blowing things up; if you remember Judi Dench's M calling James Bond (Daniel Craig) a "blunt instrument" in Casino Royale, you're on the right path. Much of being a spy is stealth and secrecy when operating as a non-official cover (NOC) agent; that is, assuming a covert role to accomplish one's mission, not registering at the hotel under the name James Bond (Casino Royale again).

The Recruit follows James Clayton (Colin Farrell) as he is ushered into the world of espionage by Walter Burke (Al Pacino). With a cast featuring Bridget Moynahan and the criminally underrated Gabriel Macht, it had all the ingredients needed to cook up a lean, sexy spy thriller. Somewhere, however, The Recruit lost its way, despite being a commercial success — it earned $101 million worldwide (via Box Office Mojo) against an estimated budget of $46 million (via The Wrap). Critics called it enjoyable but not good — the film has a middling 43% score on Rotten Tomatoes and the critical consensus states "This polished thriller is engaging until it takes one twist too many into the predictable." 

Speaking of twists, some fans aren't quite sure what to make of the film's final act. Here's the ending of The Recruit, explained.

James joins the CIA

The Recruit starts with Colin Farrell's programmer and cryptographer James Clayton presenting his surveillance software to Dell alongside his MIT peers. The program, Spartacus, allows users to take over another computer, the type of technology spies would love to get their hands on. Walter Burke (Al Pacino) tries to recruit him into the CIA — claiming to have known his late father — an offer James eventually accepts in the hopes of learning more about the circumstances of his father's death in a plane crash. James and his fellow recruits are sent to the Agency's legendary training facility — The Farm — in Virginia. Most recruits become analysts, but the select few are chosen as non-official cover (NOC) operatives and become spies.

James sizes up his fellow candidates, instantly attracted to Layla (Bridget Moynahan) and at odds with Zack (Gabriel Macht). James, who grew up without a dad, has a bit of a chip on his shoulder; he constantly tries to talk to Burke about his father, always has something to prove and hasn't quite mastered the art of losing gracefully. The latter is on full display when James and his fellow males tasked with picking up women from a local bar. James, however, fails in his task when he spots a tearful Layla, who's drunk and despondent about washing out of the program. The thing is, it was her job to prevent him from accomplishing his mission. But James gets his revenge when Layla is hooked up to a polygraph and he gets her to acknowledge she wants to have sex with him.

James goes undercover, or so he thinks

James and Layla, paired up for a surveillance exercise, are suddenly abducted and tortured. James holds out for days unknown before cracking when his captors convince him Layla is being brutally tortured. Yet again, things are not as they seem; the abduction was just another exercise, James' failure of which causes him to wash out of the program. Or so it seems...

Burke tracks down an inebriated James, informing him that his failure is all part of his cover; he's been selected as the NOC operative. His cover includes a low-level clerical position with the CIA in order to allow him to get back in touch with Layla, who graduated The Farm and works for the agency. Burke suspects Layla of selling secrets to foreign governments, including info on a powerful computer virus. James romances Layla and plants a bug on her, eventually tailing her to a dead drop. Upon following the agent who picked up what Layla delivered to her contact, James discovers it's Zack, ultimately shooting him before confronting Layla about their shared treason.

What happened at the end of The Recruit?

Layla, however, tells a different side of things; Zack was the NOC agent, not James, and her mission was testing Agency security, hence appearing to take sensitive information that was actually junk. James demands answers from Burke, only to be told Zack is fine; James' gun is loaded with blanks and this is all just part of his training. Then Burke tries to shoot James, revealing the gun is loaded with real bullets and he was actually setting James up to take the fall for his own crimes, betraying his country for his own greed. But James — no fool himself, if a little naive — appears to have been transmitting their conversation to Langley using Spartacus. A tactical team shows up and trains their laser sights on the duo; Burke, thinking his goose is cooked, goes on a rant. It turns out Burke isn't the only one who can pull a fast one; James reveals that Spartacus never connected and Burke actually ratted himself out via monologue before dying in a hail of gunfire.

So, what just happened? Layla was telling the truth; Zack was really the NOC agent and is now really dead. She really was on-mission in her attempted theft, the computer virus was actually real, and Burke was really a traitor. Did James actually wash out of his training? Yes and no; it remains to be seen whether or not he would have if Burke didn't need it to happen to further his crooked agenda. But James really is a spy now, and he finds out his father was too, as an agent tells him it's "in his blood"; despite at one point claiming to have lied about his father being a spy to prey on James' emotions, it turns out that was the one thing Burke was being honest about.