The Manchurian Candidate Review
By Shawn McKenzie 10/07/2004
A few years ago, I had checked out the original Manchurian Candidate on TV, and I was very impressed. I knew that it had Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and the recently departed Janet Leigh, but I didn’t realize how eerie it was in paralleling the world events of 1962 compared to the events of the last few years (technically, I saw the movie for the first time before 9/11.) It had been finally re-released in theaters in 1988 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (even though it had a few airings on TV in the years between), but Sinatra, who owned the rights to the John Frankenheimer-directed film, squandered his opportunity to keep the film in distribution. That led to it becoming a cult classic, and now Jonathan Demme, the man who messed up 2002’s horrible remake of Charade (re-titled The Truth About Charlie for the remake), has managed to recuperate from that debacle with this new remake. While I found it excellent in entertaining me as a story, I almost thought that it was a movie that didn’t need to be remade.
Over ten years ago, in 1991, Capt. Bennett “Ben” Marco (Denzel Washington) led and fought with his men in the Gulf War, including Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber.) Their platoon was ambushed, but all of the men, except for Eddie Ingram (Pablo Schreiber) and Robert Baker (Anthony Mackie), made it out safe, thanks to the heroism of Raymond. Raymond went onto receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery. Fast forward to the present and Ben, now an Army Major, is getting recurring nightmares about a man named Dr. Atticus Noyle (Simon McBurney) who may have participated in the engineering of his memories, leading him to believe that the facts surrounding the actual story about what happened to his unit in Kuwait may be false. One day, outside a school where he was speaking to a troop of Boy Scouts, one of the other men from his former platoon confronts Ben, a man named Cpl. Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright.) Al is deeply disturbed and shows Ben his sketchpad of his visions inspired by his nightmares. Ben dismisses Al, but in truth, since he has had the same dreams, he proceeds to investigate the story. In his dreams, he is forced by Noyle to implant a mind control device into the bodies of Ben and Raymond that will make them kill Ingram and Baker, cover it up, and then accept the credit for Raymond’s heroism. Ben tries to meet Raymond, now a political bigwig who is currently vying for the Vice-Presidential seat aside Presidential candidate Robert Arthur (Tom Stechschulte.) Raymond’s mother is U.S. Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), the daughter of a wealthy businessman named Tyler Prentiss (William Meisle) and the widow of John Shaw (Dan Olmstead), a powerful Senator whose seat he had evacuated when he died, leaving her to fill it. Eleanor has convinced her party (of which is never named) to appoint Raymond, instead of senior Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight), to be the VP running mate for Arthur. Raymond has never really understood or enjoyed being a politician, causing Ben to think that Raymond may be brainwashed too. The only time he could remember being happy is when he once dated Jordan’s daughter, Jocelyn (Vera Farmiga), but the overprotective Eleanor stopped any chance of that happening. Ben’s short meeting with Raymond gets him arrested and labeled as a kook, because Ben attacks Raymond and tries to remove the implant. No one believes Ben and they think that his investigation may be getting in the way of the interests of the executives from defense contractor Manchurian Global. Meanwhile, Ben has an underground research scientist named Richard Delp (Bruno Ganz) help him figure out what the implants are and try to answer his questions about his mind control nightmares. On the way, Ben meets a grocery clerk named Rosie (Kimberly Elise) who invites him back to her place to get freshened up, where he discovers an implant on his back. He finds her interest in Ben a little odd and he begins to suspect her as well. Several people begin to disappear, including Al and the other people who tried to help Ben, causing Ben to wonder who the real monster is…Raymond, Rosie, Eleanor, or possibly Manchurian Global itself, who may have masterminded the whole conspiracy. Finally, Ben wonders what his place is in this whole scheme, and what his fate will ultimately be.
Even in some of his worst movies, I always enjoy Washington. He constantly commands great performances, and delivers on them most of the time. He is lucky to be surrounded this time by several other great actors, including Schreiber and Streep. I will say though, I didn’t find them as good as their original 1962 counterparts. Harvey played a convincing dupe as the son, and this was arguably Lansbury’s best role ever of her career. She was so creepy as the mind-controller who messed with their heads using a weird card game (instead of implants) that it almost made you forget that she was the kindly murder writer from CBS’s “Murder, She Wrote” and the voice of Mrs. Potts from 1991’s Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast. I’d like to say that this is all Washington’s work, but the cast itself gelled together. They may not be as memorable as the original, but they did a great job.
That is why I’m conflicted here. While the performances were great, there was no surprise in the end. I don’t want to give away the ending of either version, but if you have seen the original, you might not be surprised with the remake either. I had commented to fellow critics that remakes of thrillers containing twist endings end up not being as shocking as the original. I compared it to seeing a remake of The Sixth Sense…while it may be a possibly good remake, you already know what will happen to the Bruce Willis character.
In this version, they try to update it with relevant circumstances fit for our times. Instead of a card game, there are implants (as I mentioned before.) Instead of the communist country of Manchuria, there is a corporation called Manchurian Global. Instead of the Cold War, we have the Persian Gulf War. Other than that, it is the same. Fortunately, I don’t need to compare it to Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho (perhaps the worst remake ever.)
This being an election year, I figure the filmmakers probably felt like this might be the perfect time to make The Manchurian Candidate, but, in the end, I only disagree with the twist ending. I’ve mentioned before that I have no objections to remakes, especially if they take a movie in a fresh and pleasurable direction (I site The Italian Job and The Stepford Wives, though most other critics might argue with me on the latter one.) I liked this one a lot, and I’d recommend it to others, but I just want to remind you not to expect any shocks here. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you!
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