Ticket To Intrigue

Demme's update of the politically paranoid 'Manchurian Candidate' isn't as clear-headed as the original, but is scary all the same.

July 30, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate says as much about the politics of the times as the 1962 original did, maybe even more. And while the new version may not say it as thrillingly, it is a lot more brazen and up front in its message, a shift in focus that says volumes about the political climate in 2004.

When John Frankenheimer made the original Manchurian in 1962, the United States was unified in a war one could not see, only feel - promoting a Cold War mentality that made the film, detailing a plot by the Communists to subvert the electoral process and plant one of their own in the White House, all the more chilling, not to mention unsettlingly close to home. Today, we're a country divided, at war with an enemy not everyone agrees on - Iraqis? Bin Laden? A government that would take away our civil rights?

And so we have a Manchurian where the good and bad guys are not so easily defined, where the enemy may lurk just as easily around the corner as in another corner of the world. It's important to remember that the 1962 film was also a direct attack on a political climate that would allow people like notorious red-baiter Joe McCarthy to thrive; James Gregory's Sen. Joseph Iselin sees Communists in every corner. The new version may not have a character so easily matched to a real-life counterpart, although the super-patriot pronouncements of Meryl Streep's U.S. senator call to mind similar declarations by various and sundry supporters of the Patriot Act.

The new film stars Denzel Washington as Bennett Marco, a U.S. Army major whose gulf war unit came under attack, only to be saved by the brash heroism of Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who won the Medal of Honor for his actions.

But Marco's been having nightmares about that attack in the Kuwaiti desert, and none of them end with Shaw saving the day. Turns out that's not what happened at all; instead of being rescued, Marco, Shaw and the rest of the company were captured and had their brains surgically tampered with by some evil-sounding (but definitely English-speaking) doctors with murder on their minds.

Who they are looking to murder and why becomes apparent: Shaw has been declared his party's vice presidential candidate, and some people apparently aren't happy with having their guy occupy only the second-highest office in the land. But who are these people? Will Marco clear his own head in time to stop them? And what part does Shaw's manipulative, domineering mother (Streep) play in all this, other than to make Lady Macbeth seem warm and fuzzy by comparison?

Washington is wisely cast as Marco; few actors command more instant respect, and the movie uses that to make his character both believable and sympathetic. Manchurian is not Washington's best role, because it doesn't demand all that much of him, but that's not meant as a knock. Shaw is the much tougher role, a man wrestling with all manner of demons: responsibilities, morals, a subconscious that won't let him rest, a mother who sees him not so much as a son to be loved as an opportunity to be exploited. Schreiber, never once resorting to tricks or histrionics, is up to the challenge. And Streep is appropriately chilling, chewing up the scenery in an unrestrained performance that must have been great fun for an actress so chronically under control.

The original Manchurian has become so firmly entrenched in cinematic lore that it would be silly to try to match its intricacies. To his credit, Demme doesn't try; in fact, he uses our knowledge of the original film to his advantage, allowing it to fill in some holes in the story and letting us sit there smug in the satisfaction that, yeah, we know where this story is headed.

How it gets there is another matter, and here, Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris stumble a few times, an occupational hazard when your plot depends on technological wizardry; for this year's Manchurian to work, an awful lot of gadgets have to go on the fritz nearly simultaneously, a plot device that stretches credulity a bit. There's also this little electronic chip that turns up at the most opportune time (how fortunate!).

This Manchurian also lacks much of the wit and merrily discombobulating absurdities of the original. Red queens play no part in the plot; instead, a handy European techno-whiz is on hand to wipe Shaw's memory clean when necessary. And there's no scene in the new film that approaches the giddy bizarreness of the lectures where the audience is, by turns, a room full of Communist apparatchiks or a bunch of older women discussing hydrangeas.

Still, Demme and his writers have a grand time adapting the story to today's polarized political climate, once again presenting audiences with a movie that treads just close enough to the could-be-possible line. Manchurian preys happily on a political paranoia in which half the electorate believes the other half is capable of just about anything.

The Manchurian Candidate

Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep. Liev Schreiber

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated R (violence and some language)

Time 126 minutes

Sun Score ***

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