I’m a huge fan of the original Manchurian Candidate, so naturally I approached Jonathan Demme’s redo with some amount of trepidation. In this, the year of the shoddy remake, we’ve already seen such hack jobs as The Stepford Wives, The Big Bounce and The Punisher, among a half-dozen or so updates. The catch of course is that the original Manchurian is a classic. If Demme screwed it up, it wouldn’t be the same as if he’d botched a Dolph Lundgren movie.
With a heavy sigh of relief I’m happy to report that Demme’s done right by the original. Demme takes the best of the 1962 movie, updates it appropriately for the corporate power-trip of the 2000s, and puts some spin into the plot, so even if you watched the original on DVD last week, you still won’t be able to guess how this one will end.
For those unfortunates unfamiliar with the original, here’s the story: Years after the Korean War, Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) finds himself haunted by strange nightmares about one of his army buddies, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Meanwhile, Shaw’s mother (Angela Lansbury) is masterminding his stepfather’s vice-presidency bid, a simple homage to McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. As the film develops, we learn that Shaw has been reprogrammed somehow – show him the queen of diamonds in a card deck and he’ll do anything you say, even murder the presidential candidate so stepdad can take his spot.
Heavy stuff. The new Manchurian does it just as well. Here’s the new spin: In 2008, Gulf War veteran Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is a nervous wreck, plagued by nightmares about his army buddy Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Shaw is an up-and-coming politician, just like his mother (Meryl Streep), who’s pushing her son for the VP slot in the upcoming election. (So this time around Shaw actually is the titular “Manchurian” candidate, not his father – a common misunderstanding about the first film.)
What’s Manchuria got to do with it? In Demme’s version, Manchurian Global is a conglomerate with hands in millions of pockets. It’ll do whatever it takes to make more money – even if it means coming up with an elaborate brainwashing scheme to control a few key politicians,
The movie spins and spins until evocations of Hitchcock become inevitable. As well, the updates make sense and work well. Instead of hypnosis, the villains use microchip implants. Instead of starting with a tea party, we see Shaw’s “lost patrol” playing poker in the confines of their tank in the Kuwaiti desert (the film’s sole homage to the original’s cards). Instead of making politicians the villains, Demme puts the hurt on hotly topical multinational corporations. Demme doesn’t just keep us guessing about how the plot will develop, he keeps us intrigued about how he’ll spin society in 2008 and what clever symbol of greed he might drop in next.
Two days after seeing the film, I find myself going back to key questions and reinterpretations of the movie. Most intriguing, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, is this: Does Shaw know he’s been brainwashed all along? Think about it as you watch Schreiber’s dead-on politico performance (inspired by RFK and a worthy successor to Laurence Harvey). If your head explodes I disclaim liability.
Also excellent is Meryl Streep, who, like Lansbury before her, is due for an Oscar nomination here. She chews up the screen like Hillary Clinton on PCP. Hell, I’m ready to vote for her in the next election.
Washington, as the film’s nominal star, is also very good, but the script takes a few too many pains to give him monologue opportunities and repetitive scenes, especially during his paranoid “investigations” into Shaw, which uses the “visit-the-old-army-buddy-oops-he’s-dead” routine once too often. Some jerky editing creates a few scenes that are rough around the edges; more than one conversation makes a leap that doesn’t quite make sense. Finally, some leaps of reality (a vice-presidential nomination convention?) just don’t make a lot of sense.
These are minor flaws that are easily overlooked in the end. The new Manchurian Candidate isn’t just a great remake – it may just be the greatest remake ever remade.
Review by Christopher Null © 2004 filmcritic.com