The Manchurian Candidate Movie Review
Director Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" is eerily effective in bringing the 1962 masterpiece of chilling dark satire and dangerous political corruption up to date for a world in which corporations seemingly pocket candidates, terrorists threaten freedom and fear-mongering has virtually become a campaign platform.
In this new film, the original's stiff, communist-brainwashed war hero and would-be presidential assassin Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) has become an unstable war-hero vice-presidential candidate (Liev Schreiber) made very susceptible to suggestion by a defense-contracting conglomerate (modeled on the Carlyle Group and Halliburton). And his controlling, calculating, daunting and devious behind-the-scenes mother (the brilliantly ominous Angela Lansbury in '62) has become a bulldozing, hawkish senior senator in her own right (played slightly more shrill by Meryl Streep).
An obligatory girlfriend role filled by Janet Leigh 42 years ago is refashioned into someone altogether more pivotal to the plot (a seeming good Samaritan played by Kimberly Elise). And Maj. Bennett Marco, the nightmare-haunted central character (then Frank Sinatra, now Denzel Washington) who pieces together a startling conspiracy, has become a victim of Gulf War Syndrome and at times hangs onto his own sanity by a very thin thread.
Unfortunately, Demme gets a little too carried away with other, less inspired revisions, subjecting this "Candidate's" A-list cast to B-movie machinations such as secret labs behind bedroom walls, credibility-stretching sci-fi brain implants, villainous mad scientists with vague accents and Nazi comb-overs, and gimmicky, overly convenient plot devices that defy common sense.
The film begins with a flashback to an ambush during the 1991 Gulf War, in which Shaw rescues his whole platoon, earning him the Congressional Medal of Honor. But while that's how every man in his unit remembers events, Marco soon discovers that the few of them who haven't curiously died in recent years all share the same recurring dream -- in which they were actually captured, tortured, subjected to mental conditioning and compelled to kill obediently, emotionlessly and without memory.
With Shaw running for VP, Marco imagines the implications and begins to take his subconscious seriously -- which in turn makes the military and Secret Service take him seriously as a threat when he begins stalking the candidate, trying to meet with him, hoping to disprove the terrifying conjecture running rampant in his head.
The film is served well by its powerful performances, its bold political allusions (vilifying the military-industrial complex and stage-managed elections just as the original scorned McCarthyism) and its disquietingly possible atmosphere of trepidation in an America where terrorism has become a fact of life (soldiers with M-16s are subtly ever-present in Washington and New York City). But where director John Frankenheimer's cinematically inventive '62 "Manchurian Candidate" felt as if its events had actual political implications, Demme's slick, big-budget, rock-soundtrack-saturated work lacks goosepimpling tension and leans more toward conventional Hollywood conspiracy thrillers like "In the Line of Fire," "Conspiracy Theory," "Shadow Conspiracy" and "Enemy of the State."
These movies all have their merits but they also have trouble standing up to close scrutiny. While certainly compelling, "The Manchurian Candidate" runs into similar problems in its last act as the FBI and Shaw's security contingent seem to fall down on the job, making it far too easy to bring about the film's otherwise interesting new twist of an ending -- which is then defused by a banal, unwinding epilogue.
Afraid I might have judged this remake too harshly or held it to too high a standard, I saw it a second time before writing this review, trying to block out comparisons and take the film on its own merits. But I came away bothered by all the same contrivances and plot holes, and wishing Demme, and writers Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, had gone the extra mile to outsmart the script's shortcomings instead of relying on suspense to divert attention from them.
Cast & Crew
Director : Jonathan Demme
Starring : Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Kimberly Elise, Jon Voight, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Ted Levine, Miguel Ferrer, Dean Stockwell, Zeljko Ivanek, Bill Irwin, Bruno Ganz, Charles Napier Sidney Lumet (cameo), Roy Blount Jr (cameo), Fab Five Freddy (cameo), Al Franken (cameo), Roger Corman (cameo), Forrest Sawyer, Ann Dowd, Walter Mosley