The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

by - July 30th, 2004 - Movie Reviews


Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep Sizzle in a Modernized Manchurian Candidate

A complex political allegory far ahead of its time, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate rocked cinemagoers so squarely in the jaw that it was pulled from release after real current events too closely mirrored certain aspects of the plot. Two Academy Award Nominations — including one for a ferociously feral Angela Lansbury for Best Supporting Actress — and decades of constant acclaim later, Frankenheimer’s thriller justifiably remains an essential part of the cinematic canon.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) | PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

So why remake it? Like most head-scratching questions to emerge out of Hollywood, this is one every critic asks themselves when filmmakers decide to redo an already (near)perfect movie. Most of the time, it doesn’t make sense. (Casablanca into Cabo Blanco? No thank you.) But, every now and then, sometimes things click, and crafting an update of a timeless classic isn’t as bad an idea as one might initially think.

Case in point? Director Jonathan Demme’s modern-day retelling of Richard Condon’s Communist-era polemic. Trading Korean commies for Enron and Haliburton-esque corporate bigwigs, Demme and writers Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have skillfully updated Condon’s story and deftly prey upon some of society’s worst fears in these uncertain times. While it doesn’t leave the same chilling residue as Frankenheimer’s opus, this version is still a surprisingly unnerving procedural and is an even stronger indictment of modern political realities than even Michael Moore’s anti-Bush rant Fahrenheit 9/11 was.

Two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington takes over the Frank Sinatra role as the unbalanced Major Ben Marco. A seasoned military veteran, Marco can’t shake a recurring nightmare revolving around a particularly vicious moonlight firefight involving his unit in the sand dunes of Kuwait. It was there that Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) single-handedly saved Marco and his men from certain death. For that, the wealthy son of a career politician received the Medal of Honor, and this immediately launched him into political superstardom.

But did he really save the unit? Marco runs into one of his men, Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), after a speech, and this brief meeting allows doubt to enter the career military officer’s mind as it pertains to Shaw’s heroics. Nightmares of kidnapping, torture, murder, and brainwashing keep him up at night. If only a fraction of these incomplete mental specters is true, then the only thing scarier than the lies shepherding Shaw to the Vice Presidency, are the mysterious puppeteers pulling the his strings who crafted them for public consumption in the first place.

It’s best not to talk too much about what goes on in The Manchurian Candidate, especially for those unfamiliar with either the original or Condon’s novel. Needless to say, there is a conspiracy, and it stretches into the highest echelons of power. Is Shaw’s mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), more than just a shrill harpy looking out for her son’s best interests? Can Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight), unceremoniously dumped from the Presidential Ticket to make room for the young war hero, acting like the Wizard of Oz and hiding his true intentions behind a metaphorical curtain? Or what about the multinational Manchurian Corporation? Is their interest in Shaw more than just a passing fancy?

Technically speaking, this remake features Demme at his absolute best. Not since Silence of the Lambs has the director managed to move so many different pieces so dexterously. The director’s longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto moves his camera with sublime hypnotic dexterity. Editors Carol Littleton and Craig McKay shuffle back and forth in time and memory with spellbinding specificity, a handful of their jump cuts so effective I found myself becoming almost as psychologically unbalanced as Marco was quickly becoming, and the way they ratchet up the tension with such subtly kinetic authority is outstanding.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) | PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

The acting is unsurprisingly stellar. Washington is superb, and his scenes with both Schreiber and Wright have poignancy and a nervous energy that made my skin crawl. Voight brings a quiet dignity to his far too-brief appearances, while Streep takes on Lansbury’s Oscar-nominated role as Shaw’s mother with savage barbarity. She digs her fangs so far into the picture’s flesh I could almost see the blood dripping down the screen, the actor shredding everyone that gets in her way with a carnal relish that borders on the masochistic.

But as good as this ensemble is — a scene in a conference room between Marco and Shaw just past the one-third mark is beyond stunning — there is still something missing. The pointed brilliance of the original has not been replicated. While scary on a superficial level, I kept waiting for Demme and his team to dive a little deeper, and while there is nothing wrong in the slightest with crafting an elegantly entertaining thriller, I still couldn’t help but want a tiny bit more.

This remake of The Manchurian Candidate still works. There is an urgency to the film’s execution and pacing that certainly had my palms sweating and the hair on my arms tingling. But I’m not sure it has any lasting resonance, and only a second (and maybe even a third) look sometime in the unknowable future will supply an answer to that particular question.

Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)

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