The Manchurian Candidate (2004) / Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence and some language
Running Time: 130 min.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Simon McBurney
Director: Jonathan Demme

Screenplay: Daniel Pyne, Dean Georgaris
Review published August 3, 2004

Remaking a time-honored classic film seems like a useless task, as part of the reason why the original is considered classic is due to the ability to endure over time and speak to different generations.  John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate is somewhat unique, in that it is timeless in its qualities as a film, however the subject matter regarding Communism and, in a smaller way, McCarthyism, is not as important to today's audiences as it was to those who first saw it back in 1962.  To remake it, one would have to change the subject to something else, and that's just what has been done in Jonathan Demme's (Silence of the Lambs) 2004 updating.  While it is definitely a remake, enough has been changed this time around to entertain audiences of today, regardless of whether or not they have viewed the original film.  It's not an improvement, merely a modernization, and while it lacks the satirical bite and comedic asides of its predecessor, it still manages to entertain quite well as a straightforward thriller with intelligence.

The storyline primarily follows two Gulf War veterans, Raymond Shaw (Schreiber, Sphere) and his commanding officer Ben Marco (Washington, Crimson Tide), who have returned to very different homecomings.  Shaw is the hero who saved his squadron, earning him the vaunted Congressional Medal Honor, while Marco has been diagnosed with almost every psychological malady and syndrome you can get in a post-war environment.  Marco has been suffering from a recurring dream -- a dream that Shaw wasn't the hero of the hour, but in fact, had been the subject of an extreme psychological make-over, in which all of the troop had their brains "re-wired" to believe the events as instructed, while still under the control of a force they know not the motive of.  This dream includes the vision of Shaw murdering one of his fellow soldiers.  Meanwhile, Shaw has been hand-picked as the country's potential next Vice President, thanks to the influence of his mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw (Streep, The Hours).  Sensing that there is a sinister plot about to be hatched, Marco decides to try to blow the whistle in the hopes of putting a stop to the events.  However, with his past record of mental instability, his complaints fall mostly of deaf ears, including those of Shaw himself, who sympathizes with his plight while also disagreeing with them. 

What saves The Manchurian Candidate from blasphemy are the several nifty new twists introduced, as well as the consummate professionalism from every member of the cast and crew.  This is Demme's second remake of a classic film in row, however, unlike his overcooked update of Charade in The Truth About Charlie, he directs with just the right amount of style here, always staying true to the events of the story as they unfold.  Powerhouse performances are what you expect from great actors like Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, but its the quirky and beguilingly confused performance by Schreiber that is the real surprise here.  This is a solid film all around.

Much more of a paranoid thriller than a black comedy, The Manchurian Candidate will probably never be heralded as a great film, even if it were a wholly original work.  As a thriller, though, it ranks among the very best of the year.  Underneath its surface of entertainment, some good food for thought does exist, particularly in the skepticism that the government is potentially subject to becoming a puppet to corporate interests -- if it hasn't been already.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo