‘The Recruit’ Review: Noah Centineo Proves He’s a Leading Man in Charming Netflix Thriller

The “To All the Boys” breakout plays a CIA lawyer unraveling a conspiracy in the new series


If anyone had any doubts about the power of Noah Centineo, Netflix’s “The Recruit” will put those to rest. The actor had a brief stint as the internet’s boyfriend when he starred as Peter Kazinsky in Netflix’s “To All the Boys” franchise, and recently appeared as a superhero in the Justice Society of America in “Black Adam,” but now, he gets the chance to prove that he’s a true leading man. In fact, he’s so charming in “The Recruit” that his charm is all the show really needs to be entertaining. Is this really what lawyers do at the CIA? I have no idea, and it kind of doesn’t matter. This show isn’t really about lawyers. 

Centineo plays Owen Hendricks, a 24 year-old kid fresh out of law school who was immediately recruited by the CIA. He now works for the agency’s general counsel, and generally has no idea what he’s doing. He knows law, of course, but working as a lawyer for the CIA is a little different than working at a regular firm, like his roommate and ex-girlfriend Hannah (Fivel Stewart), who worries about her friend and his dangerous job. There are a lot of rules that people keep neglecting to mention, and Owen only finds out about them by breaking them. Plus, he seems to love to get himself into danger. 

Owen is first tasked with going through graymail, or letters received by the CIA from people threatening to reveal classified information. Most graymail is not credible, but Owen quickly finds one that is, and he sort of bumbles along on an investigation into the claims of a woman named Max (Laura Haddock) who is currently in prison for murder and says she used to be a CIA asset. He jets around to places like Vienna, Yemen and Phoenix, Arizona, and soon uncovers some sort of conspiracy that greatly irritates his coworkers (Aarti Mann and Colton Dunn) who are intent on hazing him. Owen just sort of goes with the flow, following the clues where they lead and breezily adapting to whatever his surroundings are. As a result, he ends up in a lot of sticky situations that he has to talk his way out of, and that’s the thing he’s best at doing. 

Owen is no James Bond, which is partly what makes him so refreshingly watchable. He has to be instructed over the phone how to take down a would-be assassin, and apologizes for commandeering a car to escape. There are elements of the NBC show “Chuck,” but Owen doesn’t have a computer in his brain. He’s simply got a law degree, a sense of humor and a will to live. He also has a slightly eccentric but supportive boss (Vondie Curtis-Hall) both breathing down his neck and patting him on the back, and Owen and Max make quite the odd couple, much to his irritation. His colleagues have trouble trusting him, mostly because he’s so charming and so seemingly dumb that he’s got to be hiding something, because he’s occasionally alarmingly good at his job. 

The show is also a showcase for creator Alexi Hawley, who once again proves that he’s a master of putting lovable crime solvers in challenging situations. ABC’s “The Rookie,” which Hawley also created, is a surprisingly adept, entertaining and thoughtful network police procedural, and “The Recruit” shows what Hawley can do with a streaming service budget and a binge model. The result is a sort of mix between an episodic procedural and a serial spy thriller, which makes for a perfectly pleasant binge.

It’s just fun and smart at every turn, and there are many turns to take as Owen’s graymail case sends him on a wild goose chase all over the world, followed closely by spies, assassins, members of the Russian mob, and several different women who all have some kind of understandable obsession with him. He’s a bit of a mess, but he makes messy look good — for the most part, when he’s not dealing with anxiety attacks and refusing to acknowledge it. People who work at the CIA, he constantly has to be reminded, all have to be a little crazy. The work is dark, but Hawley’s characters never totally lose their quirks amid the gunfire, sometimes to their detriment. 

There’s nothing new or particularly revolutionary in “The Recruit,” and there are times where the graymail case gets confusing as the show speeds through the information that Owen is working from. It might not work with a different sort of actor in the leading role, but Centineo makes it all flow seamlessly and it proves that he’s still at the beginning of what should be quite a career. The show itself also clearly sets up a second season, and could have a long life (whatever that means on Netflix) as it finds ways to expand the storytelling. There are hints that there are other stories to tell in the world of CIA lawyers, like when we get a brief subplot about the government accidentally building a murder robot, and it would admittedly be nice to not have every spy tale end up in Russia.

For now though, this first season of “The Recruit” is totally worth its eight hours.

“The Recruit” Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.