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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(SPOILERS for both the original and the remake)
This was not a bad movie on its own terms. Good cast, stylish direction by Jonathan Demme (though now in his trademark style: huge close-ups of people looking right at the camera), some nice suspense.
But everything and I mean everything that made the original 'Manchurian Candidate' an unforgettable classic has been forcibly removed or revamped into dumbed-down mediocrity for our sped-up, sound-bite-ridden, politicized times.
Part of the problem, indeed , is that we can't make a 1962 movie today. We're way in the future now, and the quiet, rather straightforward simplicity of the original could not be put on the screen today (Van Sant tried it with his shot-by-shot 'Psycho' and it didn't work.)
So instead of beginning (after a brief prologue) with a brilliant credit-sequence and David Amram's deeply sad and aching score, the new one begins with a herky-jerky burst of loud rock music and a helter-skelter barrage of images of war. It's 2004, kids, enough of that quiet emotional crap.
From the start, the original had emotional resonance via its music and credit portraits of the pensive lead players alone. From the start, the new movie has no emotional resonance at all. The biggest shock is how the emotion has been sucked out of the story, entirely.
In the original, when Raymond killed the Senator and his daughter, the daughter was Raymond's new wife, the woman he deeply loved, the only person in the world who might possibly save Raymond from the pre-programmed horror of his life. Raymond's killing of those two people was the turning point of the entire film and filmed by John Frankenheimer as a dazzling Wellesian cinema sequence with the symbolic wit of the film's dark comedy (the milquetoast liberal Senator dies shot through a carton of milk, his bleeding heart bleeding the milk of human kindness.)
All gone now in the remake's bizarre attempt to merge the murder scene with Raymond's great 'jump in the lake' scene from the original. The Senator's daughter (who looks oddly like Marilyn Manson) barely cares about Raymond anymore. His killing her is of little emotional pain.
The karate fight is gone, which means the new film is action-free, but something else important is missing:
In the original, Raymond sees his 'houseboy,' and doesn't recognize him as the man who betrayed and tortured him. Marco sees the same 'houseboy,' recognizes him on sight, and launches his furious payback attack.
There was a POINT to that. Raymond was weak, controllable. Marco was tough; his brainwashing didn't take. The contrast of tough Marco and sneering, weak Raymond, and their bonding as fellow brainwashees, was emotional and meaningful. The new Marco and Raymond prove, near the end, essentially interchangeable.
The simply magnificent 'garden party' dream sequences of the original have been removed and replaced with generic herky-jerky mind-bend sequences (we saw just last week in 'The Bourne Supremacy.')
The wonderfully symbolic playing cards/Queen of Diamonds theme has been replaced by the old microchips-planted-in-my-brain canard (we saw just last month in 'The Stepford Wives.') There is no longer a visual linkage between the Queen of Diamonds and Raymond's mother.
The wonderful trigger line: 'Why don't you pass the time by playing a nice game of solitare?' has been replaced with a banal 'Sergeant Shaw. Sergeant Raymond Prentice Shaw' so that when Streep utters the words, she had to bark them like some sort of nutcase drill sergeant (Lansbury simply offered the chilling invitation to her son.)
Classic movies bring the right actors together in the right combination. As good as they are, none of the four leads here Washington, Streep, Schreiber, Elise make the emotional connection that their four forbears made.
Streep is the worst, indulging her usual tics and self-referential mannerisms to make Mrs. Shaw a one-dimensional political ogre rather than the grand monster that Angela Lansbury was (here,the Manchurian Global baddies look at Steep near the end as if thinking 'We hired this idiot politician to front us?') Times being what they are, Streep will get an Oscar and mumble speeches like "For little old me? I don't deserve this." She doesn't.
Washington is a highly skilled actor who captures this version of Marco well but Sinatra's Marco was a tougher character (that karate fight) rendered far more sad and soulful in Sinatra's best performance. Sinatra was always a great singer of lost loves and causes he carried that emotion forward to his work as Marco. Washington can play tough, but doesn't really get to, here. Washington's fierce intelligence also neutralizes his emotional connection to the story. It's not whether Sinatra or Washington is the better actor (both won Oscars), its Sinatra's fitting the tale better.
Liev Schreiber has it in him to match Laurence Harvey's singular performance in the original (so unlovable and yet so sad; a killer beyond his ability to control it), but the new script doesn't give Schreiber a chance.
And yes, Rosie is explained in this movie as a character we've seen in 100 movies and 1,000 TV shows. The mystery is gone. Kimberly Elise is given nothing new to play. And she is not the star -- yet -- that Janet Leigh was when she played the role. Identification with Leigh (right after "Psycho") was more intense.
The ending of the new film mangles the meaning of the original. The switch of assassins requires the elimination of the tragedy of the original, and forces a expository epilogue in the modern 'gotta explain it all" tradition.
And the loss of Joe McCarthy, World Communism, the Chinese, the Russians, and the Koreans in favor of gutless Hollywood PC villainy (an evil corporation, white guys smoking cigars, and a South African white scientist) is standard issue. We've seen this movie before and it wasn't 'The Manchurian Candidate.'
That the new 'Manchurian Candidate' is worth seeing at all is because the source material is so good they can't totally wreck it, and because the star actors are interesting enough even if they never soar where the original took its characters.
It's a three-star movie of four-star plus material, and in destroying virtually everything that made the original such a special film and great classic, the new 'Manchurian Candidate' deserves a drop of at least another star.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although the marketers insist that it isn't a straight remake of the
original, it obviously is all they key elements are the same. The new
twist is supposed to be a post-modern take on America, because every
liberal with a camera loves to point at the United States and laugh.
Yet somehow it just feels simple and lazy. All the observations are
obvious; the supposedly sly political commentary is about as elevated
as Al Franken pulling a funny face, or Michael Moore ingratiating
himself to Canadians by assuring them how stupid Americans are.
Denzel Washington is the epitome of cool. I don't think he can give a bad performance. He gives this movie all his effort, and I would say that his performance and the brief one by Jeffrey Wright as Al Melvin are the best parts of the film. But even Washington can't overcome a scenery-chewing, cringe-inducing overacting seminar given by Meryl Streep, the exercise in blandness that is Liev Schreiber, and a generally inconsistent, heavy-handed, and patently ridiculous storyline.
The movie starts off on the wrong foot with a jarring and poorly-constructed opening. We are subjected to about five minutes of soldiers playing cards in the back of an armored vehicle, while different loud rock tracks cut in every few seconds. This is the credit sequence, and it is not crucial to the movie. But it completely fails to draw the viewer into the atmosphere the filmmakers are trying to set (Wyclef Jean destroying John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son" doesn't help).
Then we have brief action in Kuwait and a sudden jump cut to the present day. Raymond Shaw is running for the Vice President position, and everyone believes he heroically rescued his entire squad in Kuwait. Marco is on the lecture circuit, speaking to Boy Scout troops about his time in action. He is confronted by former squad mate Melvin, who tells him that he is having bad dreams and who shows Marco a journal of drawings and notes. Marco reacts strangely to this rather than admitting that he has these bad dreams himself, he holds Melvin at arms' length. We all know at this point that Melvin will turn up dead later in the movie, so it's best to say your goodbyes now.
This is where the first plot hole of the movie shows up. Suddenly Marco is completely involved in this conspiracy theory, merely by seeing Melvin's journal and having some more bad dreams. Are we expected to believe that in the years following the incident in Kuwait, the men of the unit never got together to discuss what happened? That none of their superiors found it odd that they gave the same word-for-word description of what supposedly happened, or had the same nightmares? Marco tries to speak with Shaw, who is busy with his campaign and incredibly controlled and domineered by his mother. On the way to speak to Shaw, Marco is approached by a woman named Rosie (the required love interest) who mysteriously invites him to her New York apartment. Here we have another plot hole, as Marco discovers an implant in his shoulder while showering (so he never touched his shoulder for over ten years before this?) but loses it down the sink. Marco then arranges a meeting with Shaw and in a curiously homo-erotic scene bends him over a table and bites his back. This allows him to steal Shaw's implant, which he then gives to crazy scientist friend Delp (another plot line that goes nowhere) who for some reason gives Marco a massive electric shock to the head. I'm sure he explained why he did this, but his accent was so damn thick I couldn't understand a word, and in the end it makes no difference whatsoever.
More of the conspiracy is revealed as the presidential election draws near. Marco continues investigating, clicking a Google link as dramatic music plays. Turns out that Rosie may be a federal agent. Shaw himself waffles (he's a flip-flopper!) between robotic guilt and robotic ambition. Meryl Streep eats a couch. Shaw wades into a river in a full suit and kills a man with a kayak, then drowns his one true love. Nobody finds this suspicious. Then suddenly the federal agents who didn't believe a word of Shaw's story completely trust him and escort him to a private room with the man, on the eve of the election; both men are triggered and start the assassination plot which has a bizarre twist at the end.
There is one aspect of the storyline a dropped plot line that particularly frustrated me. In the original movie, it was killing his childhood sweetheart that caused Shaw to rebel. In this version we are subjected to a few torturous scenes of Shaw insisting that Jocelyne was his one true love, despite the fact that the two actors have absolutely zero chemistry (to be fair, what woman could love a robot). Then Shaw offs her in a river with her dad and the entire plot line is dropped. This just makes no sense. In fact, the entire scene where Shaw kills the Jordan family is ridiculous killing a man in the open in his kayak? This screams screenwriter phobia.
Why go to all this trouble just to get a guy elected president? It doesn't appear to be very hard to do, particularly if you have the right last name. But at this point in time the demonizing of Americans has become a cottage industry, and everyone wants a piece of the pie. It doesn't seem to matter to the people who buy this stuff whether or not the story is believable, coherent, or even entertaining. As long as it's critical of the United States it's in. If that's your mindset, I suggest you cozy up with this tepid remake and lather up your back for a good patting. Otherwise it's just more grist for the cable TV mill.
I have to admit, I was horrified to see that someone was remaking the 1964
near-masterpiece. I had no intention of seeing it, but then I happened to
catch Demme and Washington on "Charlie Rose", and Demme put my mind to rest
that he was not trying to remake the original picture. I was still skeptic,
but I decided to have an open mind and check it out for myself. I'm glad I
The only thing this film has in common with the 1964 film is a political background, a domineering mother, and the brainwashing angle (which is done significantly differently here). This film is about what's happening now, and it's as gutsy as any film in today's political climate can possibly get. The story is told through the inflamed, paranoid POV of a Gulf War veteran who tries to unveil a plot between a corporate hierarchy (that's involved in the defense industries and medical technologies among other things) and certain politicians who want to stake their influence on a vice presidential nominee. This 'influence' is achieved through the brainwashing of the nominee as well as several soldiers who had been stationed with him in Kuwait.
Political machinery and defense industries have always been dangerous bedfellows, but when the politicians actually have worked in, and have personal interests in those industries, the motivations of such a partnership can be used to exploit the public in all sorts of ominous ways. This film brilliantly places the sort of paranoia that can derive from such precarious matches as a sign of our times. Consciously or subconsciously, conspiracies are on all of our minds. Today, because there is so much secrecy in the current administration, no one knows just how terrible OR innocent these guys might really be. And where there is secrecy, there will be conspiracy theories galore. Paranoia is so commonplace in such a society that it is technically very easy for plots and lies to thrive healthfully. We tell ourselves, "the government is honest and probably has good reasons to keep secrets from the public, so those who see plots and conspiracies must all simply be deluded and paranoid. Right?"
The fact is that politicians can easily lie, and the media, instead of demanding the truth, puts outrageous spins on those lies claiming to present them as 'facts'. This becomes an almost intolerable static that begins to blot out all meaning. One of the most ingenious things about this film is in its use of that kind of static. Throughout much of the film, there is a cacophony of radios and TV spewing out their obligatory spins simultaneously, as well as the nearly constant sounds of traffic and people talking over one another. The people in this movie can hear, but no one is listening. There's also a proverbial static between science and technology and the moral questions that remain elusive. The survivors of the brainwashing experiment mentioned above, have little chips implanted in their backs that somehow aid the brainwashers. The chips could be some sort of homing device, or perhaps some sort of hormone moderator that's supposed to keep the men in the mental state that makes them more easily susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Well, chips that can serve as homing devices, or that can regulate hormones and amino acids such as tryptophan, are in the experimental phase today. In other words, this isn't way-out science fiction here!
Okay, I know I'm sounding like I'm paranoid and that I'm saying that everything in this film can and will happen. Don't worry, I know this is just a movie and that the events depicted in it are EXTREMELY unlikely to ever take place. What I'm focusing on is how well the film takes themes, facts and situations that are topical and at least emotionally legitimate, and presents them in the context of a whopper of a good thriller. The film is fresh and audacious and honest in all of its approaches, with the one exception of Meryl Streep who seems to think she's in a Bette Davis movie. In the original "Manchurian Candidate" Angela Lansbury played her role, and she was appropriately icy, deliberate, and almost iconic in the way she carried her power. For some reason Streep tried to go to self-consciously comic proportions (you can almost see her winking at the audience saying "don't you just LOVE how bad I am?"). The rest of the performances however, are appropriately sober and solid. I never caught Washington acting, and Schrieber is masterful in the way he consolidates the conscious and subconscious friction of his character's agony into an invisible but palpable tension. The score by Rachel Portman is eerily reminiscent of Howard Shore's score for "Silence of the Lambs", and just as exciting and effective. And I can't help but thrill over Wyclef Jean's fantastic rendition of the CCR song "Fortunate One": a version as appropriate to this decade as the original version was to the late sixties (check out the lyrics: replace 'senator's son' with 'president's' son, and see if George W. Bush doesn't come to mind!).
Finally, is this film as good as the original version? They're so different I honestly can't compare. I can only say that this film is as appropriate to the political and sociological climate of today as the original was to its day. Don't forget both versions were based on a novel, so comparisons should be made in that context more than anything else (I haven't read the book so I can't comment on that). There are some loopholes in the current film's plot, and I do love the cinematic style of the original film more than this one. But as I was only a kid when the first film came out, this film has a slightly stronger emotional impression on me than the other one. I only hope all it stays science fiction!
Here's something I never thought I'd say: I enjoyed parts of "The Manchurian
Candidate" remake; it isn't as bad as I expected it to be.
And much of the credit goes to the three main players - Denzel Washington as the paranoid veteran, Liev Schreiber as the titular character and Meryl Streep as the power-hungry, Oedipally motivated Senator Eleanor Shaw.
Screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris reinvent and contemporize Richard Condon's novel and the 1962 film. While John Frankenheimer's film, written by George Axelrod, was the apotheosis of the Cold War thriller and a scathing indictment of McCarthyism, Jonathan Demme's remake is less subtle in its approach and paranoia, but takes barbed jabs at current politics, the corruptibility of our elected leaders and paranoia disguised as patriotism in a post-9/11 America.
The remake also owes a debt of gratitude to Alan J. Pakula's brilliant 1974 paranoia-conspiracy thriller, "The Parallax View."
Although it isn't clear whether Raymond Shaw is a Republican or Democrat - his mother certainly seems more Republican in her outlook and politics - Demme and his writers' point is that all American politicians are bought and paid for by big business. As we all know, we never heeded President Eisenhower's prescient caution about the military industrial complex.
The villainous Manchurian Global clearly was inspired by Halliburton - there's even mention of the company getting no-bid contracts. Pay close attention and you'll hear pointed references about the use of private contractors by the military, malfunctioning touch-screen voting machines and our government's "compassionate vigilance." Also, look fast and you'll see a news crawl about a Wal-Mart-type chain and a newspaper story about our treatment of Muslims.
Washington's awfully convincing as a man fraying at the edges, whose grip on reality seems to be slowly slipping, and there were a few moments where Schreiber almost reminded me of Laurence Harvey.
Streep, on the other hand, proves why she is undoubtedly the best actress this nation has ever produced. Her Eleanor spits venom. We're utterly convinced why Raymond's such a cuckold. We can only imagine what his poor father must have endured. Streep occasionally comes close to being campy, but so completely dominates the screen that she scares us even when she chews ice.
But several other talented actors, including Jon Voight, Vera Farmiga, Dean Stockwell and Ted Levine, are used to little or no effect.
Some crucial plot elements make no sense. The Dr. Noyle scenario, for instance, proves to be illogical, especially when we learn more about him. Neither Pyne nor Georgaris attempted to rectify this deficiency. Also, the mysterious Muslim women are superfluous. I wonder if their bit wound up on the cutting-room floor.
The film contains an unmistakable cynical tone. As much as it's clearly an indictment of big business' control of politics, it also denounces our leaders' insistence on keeping the public on edge with terror alerts. And as Senator Shaw points out, "The assassin always dies. It's necessary for the national healing."
But after maintaining its cynicism for much of the film, it comes apart completely at the end. Demme and his writers cop out with a pointless and weak denouement. That gunshot you hear is Demme shooting himself in the foot.
It's almost as if they gave in to appease some mindless preview audience or dimwitted studio hack. Or, maybe they envisioned it just like this. Given my admiration of Demme, I'd like to think otherwise. Hope I'm right.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
*READ AFTER YOU'VE SEEN THE FILM, CONTAINS POSSIBLE SPOILERS*
For anyone who believes this movie was an excellent suspense thriller and a superb film...you have been brainwashed worse than Raymond Shaw.
This film, or more importantly, this screenplay is only the latest entry exemplifying a very alarming trend in major Hollywood suspense thrillers. Most notably, the film `Godsend' came to mind almost immediately after seeing `The Manchurian Candidate' as a prime example of the same flaw, as well as to a lesser extent the films `Training Day' the cryptic Mamet thriller `Heist' and the `Indy' non-Hollywood but equally flawed (and for the same reason) `Cabin Fever.'
What these films have in common is the single major problem with dramatic screenwriting today; the lack of a well-planned, well-executed, well-developed, payoff laden or at all logical third act. For those who may not know what I'm talking about, if you were enjoying `Candidate' quite a bit as I did in the beginning, then felt it slowed down a little and got less scary and weird in the middle, but was still very entertaining, and then at the end took one of the biggest *dumps* (for lack of an expletive) that a bad script can, you've identified the problem too. Think of the terrible plot holes and enormous flaws in the logic of the plot starting about half way through and getting worse and worse till the out-of-nowhere ending. For instance, if these people, Manchurian Global, were able to do this kind of mind control effectively, why would they even have let Ben Marco go back to his normal life, why wouldn't he be as under control as Raymond Shaw all the time? The answer, because then the movie would suck and the story would cease to exist. Much more importantly, at the end, why or rather HOW could Marco fail in his objective to assassinate the president when in every other instance a mind controlled character does what they are told to do? The answer, because then the movie would have ended on a logical, but unfortunate unhappy ending. Is it an accident Marco killed the wrong people, did Manchurian Global give him another order AFTER `Mother' did? If you start thinking about a number of things like this that happened as the film progressed and try and apply logic to them, you'll find yourself quite muddled and confused. You'll be left with snippets of information and jumbled footage and scenes that paint a clear picture that some critical screen elements and scenes you needed to see are in fact completely missing. In addition to the horrendous third act, the general editing of the film was poor, even the opening credits sequence featured unhinged jump cuts and strangely juxtaposed sequences that were jarring at best. This is what happens when an edited film is edited AGAIN, for the wrong reasons, and by the wrong people. It's dumb Harvard MBA Studio Execs using bad box office science to make a BAD movie which tests extremely well with monkeys.
The problem is that what was a good screenplay with several very interesting ideas and great political intrigue was either abruptly finished the way studio executives thought it should be without any concern for logic, story development, or the plot, or it was a major hack job on the third and most important act of the screenplay. The film `Godsend' has this same problem, great first act, okay second act which starts to go bad half way through, and then a TERRIBLE third act and ending which ruined the whole film. `Heist' has a very similar problem, mainly third act related, and the list goes on, including `Cabin Fever' for example, same exact problem: cool idea, starts off great, then the third act comes and SUCKS. `Training Day,' ironically another Denzel Washington film, also has this same problem, a BAD third act where everything starts unraveling the wrong way for no reason at all. On that film I can at least say after hearing from the writers' own mouths at a Q&A that I know they were not to blame, as they had a much different ending in mind originally, then they were told what to change and how to change it.
I urge you, please, DO NOT tolerate this kind of banality or we will as the `mindless' audience will continue to get films marketed on excellent, highly proficient and well-edited trailers as `Candidate' had, high levels of supposed intrigue, and great performances that fall apart like a house of cards the minute a single gust of `logic' is blown by way of the story.
If you left the theatre entertained but unsatisfied, demystified, and feeling unfulfilled by this film and you don't know why, I've had the same dream too, it's not you, and it's not something you missed. Other people seem to think there isn't a problem and that `everything is under perfect control' with this film, but it is not, there are major things wrong here that should have been fixed by any writer or studio executive with half a brain, but instead they were left blatantly exposed, like another huge logic plot hole concerning `Dr.' Noyle and why there were press clippings of him doing things for Manchurian Global and then AT THE SAME TIME press clippings and research saying that he's a known illegal, banned in Western countries certified `mad scientist.' Keep thinking about that one for awhile, or just take some more of your medicine or turn on FOX to hear what MOTHER has to say.
I have not seen the original John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian
Candidate", which is considered one of the best political thrillers
ever made. So it was curious that Jonathan Demme (a great director
whose previous work included "The Silence of the Lambs") chose to
remake the "The Manchurian Candidate". Still basing the story on the
novel by Richard Condon, and the 1962 screenplay by George Axelrod,
screen writers Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have updated the Cold War
political thriller to the global nuclear terrorism threat on our
homeland, and introducing the clandestine presence of a ubiquitous
corporation like Manchurian Global. Demme along with reinventing a
contemporary storyline, assembled a powerful cast, Denzel Washington,
Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber. Streep as Senator Eleanor Shaw, the
mother of Vice Presidential candidate, Raymond Shaw (Schreiber), is
absolutely powerful and compelling. She is playing against type-- her
Eleanor Shaw is a Machiavellian Lady MacBeth. She is ruthless and
smart. Streep's performance is awesome.
During the Gulf War Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Schreiber) saved his fellow soldiers when his CO, Maj. Ben Marco (Washington) is knocked unconscious. Shaw receives the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery. Back to the present day, Eleanor Shaw (Streep) imposes her sheer will and brokers the Vice Presidential slot for her son, the War Hero, on her Party's ticket. Eleanor has political ties with the very powerful Manchurian Global corporation. Meanwhile, Maj. Marco is plagued by incoherent memories of what happened in Iraq. Were his memories actually manufactured? His investigation seems to point to brainwashing and a conspiracy. And what is the ultimate goal?
Demme is a good storyteller. He keeps the story taut and paced. He also enlists effective performances from his talented cast. Denzel Washington is good as Marco. He is also playing somewhat against type. His Major Marco is a broken man regaining some of his honor, and he plays it very close to the vest. Marco is a not a charismatic character, but Washington imposes his own force on the character. Schreiber is amazing as Raymond Shaw. Outwardly, he might have played a puppet in an elaborate power play; however, he gives Shaw a strength of character that is riveting with internal conflict. Meryl Streep really steals the movie as Eleanor Shaw. Her performance is so commanding. Even in her ruthlessness and singularity, she can not be dismissed as plain evil, because ultimately her intentions are noble. That conflict embodied in her character makes "The Manchurian Candidate" worth watching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Egads, what a pile of carp this movie is! So, what exactly was the useless chip in the shoulder supposed to do, as opposed to the chip in the head? And are there more chips in other body parts? And why exactly was Ben Marco magically alive at the end as well as bald after he was killed? Really and truly, I do absolutely love dream-like movies, and don't need everything explained to me, but these useless, lazy plot tangents are just plain dumb. I get the feeling that Demme and crew took some puffs on the stupid pipe to make this movie and thought what they were doing was really cool. Seriously, this is the only explanation that makes sense. On the plus side, somebody needs to put Denzel Washington in a decent movie where he can play crazy. He really was amazing. It's just too bad he was in this movie doing it. Also on the plus side, the DVD special features were more interesting and thought provoking than the actual movie, which is sad. I wish I could brainwash ninety-five percent of this movie out of my head.
The 1962 version of "The Manchurian Candidate" - starring Frank Sinatra
and Lawrence Harvey - caught the conspiratorial mood of the time when
so many Americans saw a commie round every corner. The current 'war of
terror' might have seemed like an apposite time to attempt a remake.
I've been a fan of Denzel Washington since he played Steve Biko in
"Cry, Freedom" and I regard Meryl Street as the finest actress of her
generation, so the chance to see the two starring together for the
first time was an attractive one. Since I'm a political animal, the
vehicle of a political thriller appeared to add to the attraction. But
Jonathan Demme's remake of John Frankenheimer's classic, although it
has a certain style, is overall a real disappointment. Frankly it is
lackluster when it is not simply silly.
Streep gives a bravado performance as the manipulative mother of the Vice-Presidential candidate who is under external control and Washington is always watchable, but Liev Schreiber as the brain-drilled war hero and politician is robotic even when he is not 'activated'. The 'up-dating' of the story to make corporations rather than Communists the enemy is a well-worn theme, ranging from the Peter Sellers' movie "Being There" to the more recent television series "24". What this new version of Richard Condon's 1959 novel tells us is that Americans are no less fearful and paranoid than they were in the Cold War and Hollywood is no better at remakes than it ever was.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of the finest political satires ever written, Richard Condon's 'The
Manchurian Candidate' is a Trojan Horse of a novel, its purpose hidden
within the artifice of a meticulously constructed thriller.
Condon chronicles the odyssey of Major Marco, a Korean War veteran who believes that his life, and the lives of his comrades, were saved by Sergeant Shaw in an act of bravery that has, quite properly, made Shaw an All American Hero.
But because bizarre nightmares increasingly suggest that Marco's memory plays him false, he sets out to discover the truth, contending with the fact that Shaw is the step-son of a political puppet whose strings are controlled by Shaw's power-crazed mother.
Shaw, it eventually transpires, has been brainwashed by the Chinese Communists in Manchuria. So have the rest of the unit. The brainwashing was carried out to equip the Communists with a means to one day take over America. Shaw, the ultimate sleeper-assassin, will gun down a presidential candidate. His step-father, the vice-presidential nominee, will make an emotional speech blaming Communism. The speech will fuel a Rightwing backlash that will sweep him and Shaw's mother into The White House.
Fortunately, Major Marco unravels the Manchurian plot. And poor tortured Shaw finally understands that he has been manipulated, hypnotised, and conditioned to such extent that he no longer has the capacity to exercise freedom of choice.
Condon's message is clear.
Politicians will sacrifice any principle in the pursuit of success. But being fundamentally stupid, politicians are ignorant of the dangers their stupidity invites. So those dangers are instead perceived but shrugged aside -- by shadowy figures who exist behind the politicians, puppet-masters to whom any ideology is worthy of cosmetic embrace so long as it enables them to satisfy their own monstrous vanity.
Thus, the idiot that is Shaw's step-father. Thus, the monster that is Shaw's mother. Thus, Shaw himself, not The All American Hero, but the heroic All American Electorate, sleep-walking its way towards the destruction of everything it once held dear.
An America that could produce a writer like Condon and a book like 'The Manchurian Candidate' is America at its best, for such a novelist, and such a novel, could only have sprung from a society with the wit to think, the vision to see, and the ability to reason.
An America that could render Condon's masterpiece so beautifully on screen is also America at its best, for in the hands of director John Frankenheimer and legendary screenwriter George Axelrod, and with powerhouse performances by Frank Sinatra as Marco, Laurence Harvey as Shaw, Angela Lansbury as Shaw's mother and James Gregory as the deranged politician, 'The Manchurian Candidate' of 1962 was, and so remains, movie-making at its finest.
And now we have "The Manchurian Candidate" version two.
And director Jonathan Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris.
And it is not merely that this is very possibly the worst American film of living memory, a cheap conceit so utterly defeated by the consequences of its own larceny that the incoherence of its narrative is matched only by the ineptitude of its writing and direction.
No. What's worse is that we have something that actually got made. In America. And seems actually to have been liked by a large section of the audience. In America.
Gone from Manchurian 2 is the politician made to dance by a master behind the scenes. Gone, therefore, is the puppet master, leaving Shaw's mother with no rational explanation for her actions. Gone, too, is Shaw the tortured Everyman, and with him the entire point of the original fable. Instead, and in so complete a misapprehension of character and purpose that it's no wonder Denzil Washington looks confused throughout, Marco assumes the assassin's role.
Finally, gone is Manchuria, and Communism, the devices which is all they were: 'The Manchurian Candidate' is no more about the Cold War and Communism than 'Gulliver's Travels' is about foreign holidays the devices via which Condon warned of the dangers to liberty that await when individuals are so manipulated that they bring upon themselves the very fate they've been most anxious to avoid.
But because the purpose of Manchurian 2 is to profit from Manchurian 1 the makers can't actually junk that, so produce in its stead The Manchurian Something or Other Corporation, run by The Most Powerful People In The World, employing A Mad Scientist from South Africa. . .
Manchurian 2 isn't the first case of moronic movie-making. And it certainly won't be the last. But it certainly ranks high amongst the most dishonest, and disturbingly so because it begs the question: if rubbish like this can be made in America today, what's next?
"Catch 22" as a cop thriller about baseball? How about "MASH" then, the tale of a potato grower taken over by aliens? "Nashville"? A private eye who composes country music in between solving murders.
Never mind the talent that conceived and the intellect that drove those originals. And never mind the stories, either: those plots, they're all much, much too deep for today's movie-goers.
Let's just take the title instead. Pretend it's a remake. Then sit back and let the money roll in from an audience whose collective brain has been so conditioned by the mind-numbing pap of so much in contemporary culture that it can no longer tell the difference between what's good and what's bad, what's valuable and what's worthless.
In which respect then, maybe Demme, Pyne and Georgaris have bettered the stellar combination of Condon, Frankenheimer and Axelrod.
They've shown that Raymond Shaw is no longer a fictional character way out in a mythical Communist China, but a real live brain-dead human being now being serially replicated to the point that it's sitting in a movie theatre near you. . .
Manchurian Candidate is far closer to the original than you've probably
heard, and even though it's not the exact movie, it hardly could have
That the original is truly relevant would count little for modern audiences, who seem to have a hard time drawing parallels from anything out of their memory. One glimpse of black and white, and funky old clothes, and most teenyboppers under the age of thirty are out the door. Since they would only sit through a first run update, it's truly fine that they have one. The wonder is, the update stands up to the original.
It even solves some of the problems of the first. Gone are the vaguely foreign looking actors standing in for Russians and Chinese agents. Gone are the poorly choreographed ju-jitsu moves.
And the new film retains the strengths of the original. Every performance is fine. Liev Schrieber is worthy of Laurence Harvey's original gut kicking performance (though it's Harvey by an edge). Washington's craft is more than a match for Sinatra's unevenly inspired work. (One of the wonders of the first is realizing that Sinatra -could- act, that he did things with rhythm and cadence because those were his only tools, and it worked. He was no method actor, but damn.) Streep's scenery chewing is frankly, perfect, because unfortunately, really disgusting people actually do exist, and the real ones are impervious to the critique that their behavior is over-the-top. Seen or heard any Fox commentators recently? Streep's Senator may be over-the-top, but the only thing that distinguishes her from the real thing is - surprise - she's only acting.
Make no mistake, both these films are paranoid thrillers, and the overly literal would say of either, "preposterous". But then, the overly literal don't usually get much out of anything that isn't underlined in Business Week with a magic marker. So if you fit in that category, go rent something less threatening.
On the other hand, if you are the nervous type...
The film's style is less dialog laden, it runs more on mood. But it really does kick in all the same places, the same incredible cynicism offset by the thinnest sliver of a wild, earnest Patriotism.
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