John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War film “The
Manchurian Candidate” works as both a suspense-thriller and a
dark political satire along the lines of “Dr.
Strangelove.” It so effectively captures a feeling of
national paranoia and cynicism that it feels as if it were made
just yesterday. So with the nation once again falling apart at the
seams and gripped by terror, Jonathan Demme’s timing for a
remake couldn’t have been better.
But while Demme’s timing is impeccable, he lacks the
execution to remake “The Manchurian Candidate” into a
film of our times. While the basic premise is preserved, the
suspense elements of the original film are trumped up to
unrealistic levels, and its satirical edge is polished clean.
What’s left is a run-of-the-mill political thriller that is
only half as effective as its predecessor.
In Demme’s version, a shadowy corporation known as
Manchurian Global (See: Halliburton) brainwashes a platoon of
Desert Storm soldiers, turning them into a band of assassins and
one of them, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber, “Kate and
Leopold”) into a vice presidential candidate. In a modern
sci-fi twist, each soldier is outfitted with a chip in his brain
that places him at the mercy of Manchurian Global. Their aim is to
place a sleeper in the White House. The notion of a powerful
corporation controlling a president, however, is far from a novel
Shaw’s commanding officer, Capt. Bennett Marco (Denzel
Washington) grows suspicious when he and members of the platoon are
haunted by recurring dreams, and even more so when he find a
tracking device planted in his back. Marco sets out to figure out
what it all means, and most importantly, where Raymond Shaw fits
into the picture.
The plot revisions that Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and
Dean Georgaris seem as if they were put in place just to
differentiate the film from Frankenheimer’s rather than for
the sake of updating or improving the original. More of the
emphasis is placed on Washington’s character than on the
relationship between Shaw and his domineering mother, played here
by Meryl Streep, which was the focus of the original. And taking
Shaw out of the role of tortured and brainwashed assassin and
placing him in the role of brainwashed vice presidential candidate
is a miscalculation, as it makes the character much less
sympathetic. Perhaps most disappointing is the updated ending,
which is largely sanitized and lacks the punch of the original.
The performances of Washington and Streep, who fill the shoes of
Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury as Bennett Marco and Sen. Eleanor
Prentiss Shaw, respectively, partially redeem the story’s
faults. Washington embodies Marco with a palpable feeling of fear
and confusion, as he tries to figure out what’s happening and
who’s responsible. Streep takes a different approach than
Lansbury in her role as Raymond’s overbearing mother. While
Lansbury played the character as manipulative and icy, Streep plays
her as more standoffish; she steamrolls anyone who tries to stand
in the way of her ambitions.
Any political or social worth in Demme’s “Manchurian
Candidate” is buried beneath convoluted plotting and sci-fi
claptrap, and given the freshness and relevancy still exhibited by
Frankenheimer’s film even 40 years after its production, the
necessity of this remake is questionable. One wishes Demme had
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.