Many critics will lie down obediently and proclaim this remake of The Manchurian Candidate as chillingly outstanding. Not this truth bearer. Standing alone, this new version is a finely tuned thriller containing a murkiness which plays up its basic, straight forward plot with fine results. With the 1962 original as its challenger, the remake comes across as disappointing and unexpectedly lacking in complexity, suspense, and character/story development. The film tries hard to be dark and nail biting with mixed results.
"Since 1917, 970 congressional medals of honor have been given out. Highest any soldier aspires. Never to be forgotten."
In a quivering voice, the words spill from a grizzled veteran's mouth. We're in an auditorium listening to Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) recall the battle in Kuwait which earned his comrade Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schreiber), the aforementioned medal. The speech was interrupted by his flashing back to the battle which earned Raymond the medal. Night goggle vision. Gunfire. Confusion. The battle feels particularly eerie in the context of today's war climate. It's hard for Marco to recall the full events, especially since he was wounded with a concussion. Surprisingly, the speech is directed to half-bored boy scouts. Shaw saved his troop by "single handily taking out the entire company of the enemy." two fellow soldiers died. Marco even challenges the young boys with "maybe one of you will earn that medal in defense of this great nation" and here lies the heart of The The Manchurian Candidate: what would you do in defense of this great nation?
It's a question Maj. Marco ultimately must answer. If he doesn't, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep) will certainly answer her call to duty. The answer of course comes after he uncovers the most deadly plot against our country since the last coup d'etat - the Kennedy assassination. (If you believe these sort of things. I do.) Just one of the reasons political thrillers (e.g., Marathon Man) always receive more than a passing interest from myself and many audiences.
It's a plot led by the powerful monolithic conglomerate, inanely but aptly named, Manchurian Global. More specifically the plot is led by its main alpha type, a lioness amongst tepid lions, the mother of war hero, now Congressman Raymond Shaw, Senator Shaw, Streep in her best performance in ages. Quite a statement for a multi Oscar nominated actress. It's a role originally breathed to life by Angela Lansbury (yes that Angela Lansbury). This being important for reasons I will discuss later.
After Marco's speech, a former soldier under his command, Al Marvin (Jeffrey Wright), confronts him regarding dreams, and the events of their battle/ambush. The sickly, haggard man looks like dead man walking. Marco simply explains that it was, "rough over there." The man has a book of drawings which provides insight into a man who is obviously experiencing some sort of short circuit in his mental components.
Already the original's more developed realism stands out in comparison.
After navigating Shaw's career to the top of the party's nomination, Mrs. Shaw uses all the stops to clear Raymond's way. This includes ordering the brainwashed Raymond to kill his biggest rival, Senator Jordan by strangulation during his daily kayaking on the Potomac. Sadly for him, he's forced to kill the girl he always longed for, Jordan's daughter, Jocelyn (Vera Farmiga) - who hysterically catches Raymond in the act of killing her father. The command to kill was given after Jordan threatens to expose Raymond's implant information to the American people. Where did Jordan find out? Through Marco's help. Both murders are easily covered up as Raymond ascends the ladder while Marco continues to pester him. In one earlier moment, Marco is allowed an up close meeting, attacks Raymond, violently exposing the implant inserted into Raymond's and their shoulders, to no avail.
With Marco's interest piqued by his own discoveries, the quest to learn the "truth" begins. In the truth, we discover that the patrol under Marco's command were part of an experimental group for deep implant behavior modification (via digital scanner/processor chip implant). The modification is to create privately owned combat units whose character can be adjusted with the flick of a switch or whose emotionally compromised past can be erased. The research effort was led by Manchurian Global Corp employee, Dr. Atticus Noyle (Simon McBurney), a South African geneticist sought for war crimes tied to experiments exposed by South Africa's truth and reconciliation committee regarding his genome studies. One other leader is Senator Eleanor Shaw, a woman readily eager to use Raymond as the chief guinea pig for the operation. All of this supposedly to save our country from people like anti-terrorist, slightly liberal (at least in Eleanor Shaw's mind), Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight, who plays these heads of state to perfection) and Governor Bob Arthur (Tom Stechschulte), the party's top candidate for the presidency. Each campaign is destroyed by the plot to leap frog Raymond from vice president candidate to Manchurian candidate. Senator Shaw's at-all-cost need to place Raymond in the oval office admittedly is a thing to behold.
It all comes to a crashing halt when the plot is revealed to Raymond after numerous attempts by Marco. He has help from a woman (Kimberly Elise in a different take on the Janet Leigh role) who at first was hired by Raymond's security team/mother to go undercover, providing surveillance on him. It all ends in a sniper shooting which takes Raymondís and his mother's life with a single bullet. The triggerman Marco is able to abort his trigger mechanism, where the original orders were to kill Governor Arthur.
It's all cleaned up with a tacked on happy ending with no need to explain.
So there the plot is. Now...
I must admit, I'm biased due to my love of the original. A film which forms director John Frankenheimer's political trilogy, which included the excellent Seven Days in May and Seconds. After hearing early buzz for The Manchurian Candidate from a friend, I was now somewhat hopeful. I knew two things going in, Meryl Streep would be outstanding, and Demme and Denzel would make an exciting thriller, right?
Only one half of this statement came to fruition. Streep was superbly creepy. Why not the other part? Because the original actually exists.
The biggest obstacle for the film to overcome is the fact almost every single story beat in this remake is better conceived in the original. From the brainwashing technique/effect to the Senator Jordan connection/murder and finally the crazed murder-suicide of Raymond at the original's end. It's an ending which leaves you gasping for air, rather than the almost joyous satisfaction when Marco takes out the Shaws in the remake. Plus the remake has a tacky, tacked on resolution scene. How both compare to the novel is a question running through my mind since I've never read the novel.
I lag on about the original because not only is it important to discuss, but also mandatory to point out when a masterpiece is butchered for financial reasons. Especially when The Manchurian Candidate is one of the strongest achievements in modern cinema, particular in regard to its contributions to the political thriller genre.
I understand the need for the remake to have its own original voice, yet with many of today's audiences unfamiliar with the original, sticking to the original's story would have strengthened the depth and realism of this remake. The remake is shockingly pc, sanitized, and tepid compared to the original. The original killing of Jordan for example (a random shooting instead of the drowning/strangulation) was horrifyingly cold-blooded and graphic in nature. Even by today's standards it still shocks and has a startling voyeuristic feel which disturbs (holding a steady gaze through a lingering low angle). The other murders are stronger throughout the original. The drowning/strangulation of Jordan/daughter in the remake, although emotionally competent and visually exciting with its cold blue underwater shots, this type of murder has been done successfully on many occasions, in just as many unique ways. Two instances include Fatal Attraction and Minority Report.
The remake adds a nice touch with the use of television images to reveal a slick, clinical feel toward Manchurian Global.
What The Manchurian Candidate lacks is what Enemy of the State, Conspiracy Theory, and Swordfish possessed - relevance and introspection into terrorism, our freedoms/rights to privacy, sanctioned brainwashing and what you'd be willing to do for your country. This is almost The Skulls with a bigger budget. Well, maybe not quite that.
This may sound presumptuous, but I assumed there would be an alien plot behind the "being controlled by a corporation" story angle. Disappointingly there was no such connection. Without trying to reveal too much, the mechanism to trigger the killer within is certainly less exciting than the, "why don't you play a little solitaire" trigger in the original.
Believability is a problem for this film's enticement. Never for an instance did the film usurp me into its world. It all felt so ho-hum. And for a thriller, isn't this the antithesis of their power.
About the performances. For all her ferociousness, all the pleasure of seeing Streep, like the recent Cruise performance in Collateral, play against type, Angela Lansbury's original performance still outshines Streep's best performance in years. It's a part which reminds me of Kathy Batesí outstanding work in Misery - a character whose friendly demeanor belies the true devil inside. The best of this is when, after asking for a few minutes, she rips into top party members, convincing the party that Raymond is a man much larger than a cabinet post position. She's a decisive woman who refuses to allow the word 'no' to enter her lexicon.
With an appropriately robotic performance, Liev Schreiber's Raymond Shaw, a Harvard honor student who rebelled against his mother by joining the army, doesn't carry the realism of Laurence Harvey's enigmatic, perfectly detached, monotonic performance. Harvey's performance carried your belief in his brainwashing. His lively persona upon striking a relationship with Senator Jordan and his daughter helped carry this belief. The relationship made their murder much more disheartening and affecting.
Other than the blustering Streep show, Denzel plays Maj. Marco as a paranoid, unsettled man falling apart but confident in his righteousness once informed. It's a performance more even-keeled than virtuoso, solid if uneventful. It's one note short of Denzel's alcoholic first-go-round as gulf war vet in the superior, Rashomon-like, Courage Under Fire. For an actor who is used to playing authority figures, the character is rather low key.
There are some nice dialogue flourishes, the overbearing Eleanor complaining that Raymond's tie needs a change, "something less busy." or for Raymond not to be so, "emotionally challenged like your father." Continuing, the vindictive Eleanor complains about Jordan's daughter, "as the girl who toyed with you that summer." and "I let them change you a little bit from what you were to what you will become", giddy and giving no thought to the consequences for her son.
Finally, there is the famed kiss which still carries the sexual connotation of the original between mother and son.
The Conservative vs. Liberals, Commie vs. Patriot, Right vs. Left ranting of the Cold War original were displayed more prominently with greater effect. The characters are thinly painted which undermines the plot oriented film thus adding to the marred effort. For the remake, it cannot overcome its shortcomings and for fans of the original this is not only shame, but also quite a godsend of serendipity. We told you not to do it.
What do you think of The Manchurian Candidate
Share your opinions on our forum