I find remakes fascinating. If I didn't, I wouldn't have seen Gus Van Sant's
reprehensible "Psycho" or the abysmal redo of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
Remaking the John Frankenheimer classic, "The Manchurian Candidate," seems
almost sacrilegous. Still, despite its many flaws, the Jonathan Demme remake
has moments of terror and intense thrills but it is relatively uninspired.
The opening frames of "The Manchurian Candidate" are set during the Gulf War,
where a group of soldiers play cards inside a tank (a group of songs and
fade-outs signify a long period of time in the tank). Ben Marco (Denzel
Washington) and Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) lead their unit to an ambush
where they are attacked by helicopters. It is so chaotic that Marco passes out,
unable to recall what happened. Years later, as he explains his story to a
classroom of potential soldiers, he reminds them that despite the horror of
war, a Congressional Medal of Honor is still worth the risk. The medal was won
by Shaw, not Marco, who defended his troops in need. Now Shaw is up for a
vice-presidential election, but he does not look like a man ready for politics
- he mostly sits in hotel suites by himself and is thus detached. Not your
normal vice-presidential nominee.
By contrast, Marco is suffering from endless nightmares, usually one where his
fellow soldiers are executed by Shaw. To keep from sleeping, Marco buys a lot
of noodles and Nodoz. His apartment is always shown in disarray, packed with
newspapers and clippings on the walls. After being reminded of his nightmare by
one soldier, Melvin (a forceful Jeffrey Wright), Marco decides to seek the
truth by asking Shaw what happened. Only the powers that be don't want him
anywhere near Shaw, especially when Shaw's mother, Sen. Eleanor Shaw (Meryl
Streep), wants Shaw to be president, by any means necessary. Meanwhile, Marco
tries to piece the truth together, discovering that Manchurian Global, a
worldwide corporation with ties to many powerful leaders, may have financially
gained from the war. They may also be responsible for brainwashing soldiers,
and perhaps they are seeking a "sleeper" to be in the White House.
If you have seen the original 1962 film, then a lot of this is probably very
familiar. To be fair, Demme injects his own touches and the screenplay by
Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris (based on George Axelrod's original script)
injects a new threat over communism: large-scale corporations that fund wars.
The problem is that the screenplay often aims to explicate scenes from the
original rather than insinuate. The nightmare itself, which is frightening to
watch, comes much too soon in the film. The ability by which soldiers are
brainwashed is also revealed in tight close-ups of a medical procedure that
would make doctors rather squeamish! Sometimes the film reaches for
melodramatic, slightly overdone scenes such as Marco's retrieval of a chip in
his skin and Raymond Shaw's, or the terminally overlong ending that aims for
resolution rather than ambiguity. The beauty of the original "Candidate" is
that it left so much to the imagination. Even one of the strangest scenes in
cinema history with the original actors, Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh, proved
why the film worked on your nerves - the paranoia and deterioration of
political corruption certainly put me in a cold sweat through most of the
Demme's version lack the original's paranoia - in many ways, this is just
another anonymous political thriller with the benefit of superlative
performances. Denzel has many great moments, especially his conversations with
Raymond Shaw. And Liev Schreiber (who I hope will finally receive star
recognition) is a standout as the oblique Shaw - his creepy smile at the end of
the film is memorable. Kudos must also go to Meryl Streep (an actress I often
dislike) playing the first truly bitchy, outspoken character in her whole
career - she is also oblique and not as mannered as she usually appears. Jon
Voight has a terrifically spry scene as another senator.
"The Manchurian Candidate" is worthwile for its performances and for Demme's
flashy direction and knowing sense of subjectivity. What it lacks is a genuine
sense of purpose.
Copyright © 2004 Jerry Saravia