There are really two movies on the screen in "The Recruit," the new Al Pacino thriller. The first is the micro-movie: the movie itself, an almost adequate formula picture in which an old movie star barks, a young one yips, cars are chased and battered and the ending seems completely unconnected to the beginning. It kills time at the expense of IQ points.

The second movie is far more interesting. It's the macro-movie, which clinically illustrates everything wrong with the modern American motion picture.

I'll give you a scene that, in its mundane way, encapsulates the current Hollywood pathology. It's a scene in which Colin Farrell, as a young CIA recruit, leaves by bus for the Farm, a legendary training facility near Williamsburg.

The camera dollies ominously in; the bus rumbles ominously toward the lens, in slow-mo, getting larger and larger and larger, the music throbs and beats and whines, my heart stops going pitty-pat and starts going bumpabumpabumpa and suddenly I remember . . . hey, it's a bus. Leaving the bus stop.

It's not a Peacekeeper missile rising on a dragon's tail of burning liquid oxygen to end the world in fire. It's not a giant iceberg smashing into the hull of a miracle ship as a way of christening the new century with an act of supreme irrationality. It's not a bridge exploding over a Thai river, cutting off Japanese supplies and changing the course of the war, though at immense, tragic loss.

No, no. It's, er, a bus. Pulling out of a government building in suburban Virginia.

Giganticism of effect yoked to smallness of conception to cover staleness of formula. Really, I couldn't have said it better myself: That's Hollywood, U.S.A, in the year 2003.

The film is like a diagnostician's guide to this strain of movie sickness. There is one thing everybody associated with the film wishes to keep you from noticing. These conspirators include the director, Aussie journeyman Roger Donaldson, the stars Pacino and Farrell and the screenwriters Roger Towne and Kurt Wimmer, and the object of their obfuscation is . . . the story.

They know it's old and it's weak and it's been done a thousand times before, as recently as last year's "Training Day." They know it can't speak for itself, that its devices are threadbare, its characters cliches, that nothing is at stake, that no passion can be found anywhere. So they gin everything else up, until the story all but goes away and you're left with giant faces, star charisma, airbursts of saliva, those crashing cars, a coupla chases and gunfights and all that thumpa-thumpa music. It's edited so fast, it's like the remote is stuck on "search."

Pacino, in his Satanic mode, with a goatee and what looks like an extra-lush hair extender, plays a supposedly legendary CIA recruiter named Walter Burke. He swaggers into Cambridge just after MIT's graduation, and, leaking charm and macho bravado like Errol Flynn after seven but not yet eight gin-and-tonics, seduces young James Clayton (Farrell). James carries a huge load up top (brains in his head and mousse on his hair). Though James is skeptical, he cannot deny the attractiveness of Burke and the life he offers, as opposed to the narratives offered by the cloneheads from Dell. (James is some kind of computer genius, besides being sexy, cute, wiggly, lithe, scruffy and tattooed.) And when Burke drops the hint that James's mysteriously vanished father might have been a CIA hero, why, James can't say no. Off they go to the Agency for psych testing, and then on to the Farm.

So for its first hour, "The Recruit" is "Training Day" out of "The Devil's Advocate," tracing a line back as far as "The D.I." It is every mentor-mentee spatfest in movie history, and while completely unoriginal, the durable structure is at least dynamic and enjoyable, if never quite convincing.

For one thing, there's the training itself. It mainly comprises OSS-type huggermugger probably not much practiced by the CIA anymore except by specially recruited operatives with military backgrounds who are already skilled breakers-and-enterers-and-shooters. And when the students aren't breaking and entering and shooting, they're game-playing.

And that is the essence of "The Recruit," the is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex? transaction. Will somebody please do a movie along everything-is-exactly-what-it-seems lines? All of us are tired of the old nothing-is-what-it-seems thing.

Soon enough, Clayton has bonded with another agent-in-training, Layla (Bridget Moynahan, a beauty), and mentor Burke delights in pairing them up with or against one another. James cons her, she cons him; Burke cons both of them. It's the con-con dance. It's "Yes, I Con." It's somebody read too much David Mamet and took it too seriously.

Then, of course, the movie has to move off the Farm, go operational, and play the games for real. At this point it becomes much weaker, and director Donaldson really earns his money staging hubbub and nonsense. There's a moment where James, disguised as a low-ranking CIA employee who in reality has been assigned by Burke to shadow a suspected mole, retrieves secret instructions that are taped underneath a bench in Georgetown. Hubba-hubba. But, like, why didn't Pacino just, you know, hand the envelope over? The two confer nose to nose just about every day!

The movie ultimately concludes in one of those ever-so-convenient abandoned warehouses on the Georgetown waterfront (where the real estate values really do preclude abandonment), and we can play one more is-it-real game. I should add -- I've repressed the memory until now -- that a lot of the conning is of the even more tiresome computer variety, and so the dramatic possibilities of tappity-tapping at the keyboard and watching the download gauge reach full do not go unnoticed by Donaldson, nor do the laser-dot aiming devices of the sort that have been obsolete for 10 years but still appear in movies.

When I see a movie like "The Recruit," I wonder: Who wanted to make this thing? It's not bad, but it's not good, either. It's nothing but style and noise, threadbare of content, empty of ideas. Is it anything? Not really.

The Recruit (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild violence.

Al Pacino and Colin Farrell struggle to mask the mundane in this formula flick.Gabriel Macht and Colin Farrell in the threadbare thriller "The Recruit."