Manchurian Candidate Review

Jonathan Demme's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" is scary. I don't mean scary like "Showgirls" was scary. Demme's a brilliant director, as evidenced by Academy Award winners like "Silence of the Lambs" and "Philadelphia."

This movie is far better than Demme's last effort, which was also a remake, "The Trouble With Charlie," cf. "Charade." But that's damning it with faint praise.

The original, directed in 1962 by John Frankenheimer, was a taut suspense film that came chillingly true the next year when a Communist sympathizer (and ex-Marine) killed President John F. Kennedy, depending on who you believe. In fact, rumor had it Lee Harvey Oswald watched the movie shortly before the assassination.

But the remake is scary in ways the original could never be. If the original was scary because it was ahead of its time (would "Three Days of the Condor" or "The Parallax View" ever been made without it?) and came true, the current one is scary because it's already true.

Huge multinational corporation with influence in the halls of power throughout the globe? Check.

Brain implants? Check.

People talking seriously about a presidential election that could decide the fate of the world? Check.

Liev Schreiber plays the title role, Raymond Shaw, a Medal of Honor recipient from Desert Storm and U.S. Congressman from New York. He's being considered as a vice presidential nominee, due largely to the machinations of his U.S. Senator mother (Meryl Streep).

Manchurian in this version refers not to the region as in the original (which used Korea in place of Desert Storm) but to a multinational corporation with a no-bid contract to rebuild war-torn countries and plans for a private army to relieve U.S. troops in combat.

As Shaw is nominated for vice president, the other men in his outfit are starting to have dreams that challenge what the record said happened leading to Shaw's Medal of Honor.

Denzel Washington's the commanding officer of the unit who's trying to get to the bottom of it.

Jeffrey Wright is wasted as one of the soldiers whose mind has gotten the better of him. Jon Voight is Schreiber's rival for the vice-presidential nomination. Keep an eye peeled in the beginning and ending scenes for B-movie king Roger Corman, Demme's mentor (he also cast him in "Silence of the Lambs" as the director of the FBI). Al Franken makes an amusing cameo as a TV news talking head.

First, the comparisons:

Schreiber makes the role his own. He's got the same vacant stare as Laurence Harvey had in the original, but instead of being "unlovable," as Harvey was, Schreiber's just not there, remniscient of the line about Michael Huffington: when you look into his eyes, you see the back of his skull.

Meryl Streep's the Stage Mother from Hell. She's a U.S. Senator from New York who works behind the scenes to get the men in her life in power. But she's not based on Hillary Clinton.

Angela Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar for this role in the original. Meryl Streep probably will as well, but then again, her home movies would get her nominated. Streep, as always, is brilliant, and doesn't even have to resort to an accent. Her character, like Lansbury's in the original, makes you feel all right to be in touch with your inner misogynist.

Washington (in the role originated by Frank Sinatra) is a little more unhinged than in the original, diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome. In general, the movie's kinder to the mentally ill than a movie in 1962 would be.

The movie hangs together well, with no seams showing. The changes made to update the film fit well into the plot for anyone familiar with the original.

But those same changes might make the movie TOO topical. It's very easy to forget now how scary Communism was in the early 1960s and how ruinous McCarthyism could be (the original "candidate," played by James Gregory, was a McCarthyesque red-baiting senator). How well will this version age?

On the other hand, a remake of a 35-year-old song was used over the opening credits. Wyclef Jean gives his rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son," and the words are just as true today as they were then.

Originally posted to 210 West. Read this and other reviews at 210west.com.

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