MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Neo-Noir Political Thriller/ Stars: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright, Simon McBurney, Bruno Ganz, Ann Dowd, Ted Levine, Miguel Ferrer, Dean Stockwell, Charles Napier, Pablo Schreiber, Anthony Mackie, Robyn Hitchcock/ Runtime: 130 minutes
I feel it is safe to start this review off by stating a fact that you may or may not be aware about the world of movie magic dear reader. This fact would be that when it comes to remaking something, it is quite the precarious situation, but even more so when the original attempt is a genuinely iconic slice of movie magic in its own right as well as a movie that is just acclaimed and relevant now as it was when it was first released. To that end, we soon see noted film helmer Jonathan Demme (as in the guy who gave us the iconic film The Silence of the Lambs) bravely attempt to give a sense of new life into The Manchurian Candidate from 1962 and helmed by filmmaking icon John Frankenheimer. Yet even though he is not successful in getting this film on the same bar of terrific in this remake from 2004, it is worth noting that it most certainly is not due to lack of effort. Indeed this is because even though this modern updating on this nightmarish tale feels less impactful than it by all rights ought to, it is still in possession of both terrific work behind the camera as well as a collection of truly iconic performances all its own. Thus even though the film is a powerhouse in regards to its technical and thespian factors, but not necessarily in regards to its themes or concepts that it is operating with, the 2004 Manchurian Candidate is a film that is able to provide you with some quite reliable and even mildly thought-provoking entertainment, and is most definitely worth seeing. Just don’t compare it to its more iconic predecessor whatever you do and you should be fine.
The plot is as follows: The Manchurian Candidate takes us to a world that in some ways is like our own, but just tweaked here and there and introduces us to a young man by the name of Raymond Shaw. A truly unexceptional young man in many respects if not for the entry on his life’s ledger that consists of his bravery and heroics in bringing his whole platoon home following a mission gone awry during the Gulf War. Indeed it was for this effort that not only was Shaw awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but it also proved to be the catalyst for an unprecedented surge in regard and prominence in the conflict zone known as American politics. Thus when the film opens we learn that Shaw, with the “aid” and “persuasive efforts” of his overbearing mother U.S. Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, has just become his party’s candidate for the posting of Vice President of the United States. However, it is also around this time that we see some of Shaw’s squad mates, including our main character by the name of Ben Marco, have begun to slowly, but surely start getting this ominous feeling that perhaps what they went through in the Gulf War, but more precisely the mission that led to Shaw’s heroics, may not have gone down exactly as either anyone says or that they even remember. To that end, we soon see Marco, utilizing at first nothing more than a series of dreams and a feeling, begin attempting to unravel this growing puzzle. A puzzle that will eventually see our beleaguered war veteran going up against a vast and nefarious conspiracy to put Shaw in the highest levels of power in this country all so someone or something can then use him to serve their nefarious agenda whatever that may entail….
Now film helmer Demme’s brave attempt to bring this iconic tale into the present day is dealt several potholes in the road with the main one being a lazy-river style feel and a narrative structure that doesn’t really have that much suspense to it as well as not really having much of a deeper meaning even though the film is trying to succeed in possessing both. The issue then is not that this kind of material isn’t either fascinating or intriguing; far from it actually. In fact whilst watching the film you will find yourself constantly wondering just how immersive this slowly unfurling conspiracy really is, just who and what is involved, and most importantly, who are the key players behind it even if a lot of those answers can be seen from a mile away. Also of note is the fact that instead of the main nemesis being both a point of view and a political movement during the height of the Cold War, it is an enemy much closer to home and one that has been constructed within the walls of a business instead of in the Soviet Union or in Mao-led China. Indeed, this version of The Manchurian Candidate in keeping up with the times gives us a set of antagonists that exist way more in the shadows, and are thus, significantly more spine-chilling because of how they seem to present that even the office of the President of the United States can be acquired if one has the right finances in order. To that end, Demme does manage to with great skill update this film with not just a more glossy exterior, but also with an antagonist that you might not, I hope, be able to relate to, but that you could possible comprehend, and perhaps most vital to the plot and in a tribute of sorts to what made the first take on this story so iconic, the tale being told seems both absurd and yet horrifying plausible all at once.
Sadly I guess I should also let you know that these new twists and curves in this well-worn road are met with a few potholes, chief among them a pace that seems to give out more than once. Make no mistake this film is not one which is a test of patience and/or sanity to get through, but for a film that is meant to show us a deeply-ingrained conspiracy where peril is always just behind whilst also giving us an in-depth look into the brutalized minds of a group of people whose primary link that binds them is a ruthless and criminal, but surprisingly quite amiable coup of the most powerful position on Earth, this film just doesn’t possess the perilous, quick, or even alarm bells-going off at full blast tone that it ought to possess. With that said, film helmer Jonathan Demme does spice up the film with some simple, but truly excellent camerawork that aids the film in feeling a certain way on the same level as both the script and the cast. To that end, we are able to see that this film is full to the brim with some truly….unique looking first person pov shots that may seem wildly confusing and disorienting upon first glance, but that ultimately work in the film’s favor. This is because the film is quite often trying to make you, the viewer just as confused about what you are seeing as the cast with particular regard to Denzel and the character of Marco. A feat that is achieved by trying to figure out everything, but as if they are facing a mirror and trying to discover who they are and were beyond just a simple reflection. Thus we see that the befuddled look of these moments are not only visually distinct and a wee bit unnerving, but they are also quite potent in showcasing the deeper concepts at play as well as the struggles in the film brilliantly. Thus from a technical point of view, Demme’s gift for blending into this material a degree of purpose, befuddlement, and peril visually really does prove to be one of this film’s biggest strengths.
As for the other biggest strength that this film has going for it, that would have to be attributed to the fantastic efforts of the stacked cast at the heart of this nightmare and that is possibly stronger than the cast that the 1962 version gave us. This starts in the lead role of Marco, and it should come as no surprise to learn that Denzel Washington does some Grade-A work in this. Indeed Washington manages to show us all yet again that this man can truly carry any movie he wishes and play any role he desires with both skill and ease. Yet despite his phenomenal turns as second-in-command of a nuclear sub squaring off against captain Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide, a street-savvy yet corrupt and ruthless to the hilt police officer in Training Day, or even as a tough-as-nails football coach striving to bring unity to his team and community in Remember the Titans, Denzel showcases yet another level of phenomenal skill in this film with his portrayal of a slightly rumpled, befuddled, and psychologically scarred military man who has the fate of both the highest institution in the land as well as the land itself riding on him even if he doesn’t know it. We also get wonderful work here from co-star Liev Schreiber who is both unnerving yet frighteningly believable in his role of Shaw aka the man at the heart of this nightmare. Yet out of everyone in this truly stacked cast however, it is Meryl Streep, surprise surprise, as Shaw’s slightly psychotic mum and fellow member of the school known as politics who manages to walk away with the film. Indeed not only is Meryl’s performance both haunting yet also realistic, but it’s also seriously haunting. More than that though, it is a multilayered turn that manages to present to us someone who could easily be a real person instead of just a role being played in a movie. Indeed it is safe to say that not only is Meryl’s involvement in the film alone worth watching it, but also watching it again with a greater comprehension really aids in showing all the depth to her character that helps make her both nefarious yet intriguingly appealing all at the same time.
All in all The Manchurian Candidate is a film that, in my opinion, is one that could potentially result in mixed emotions on the part of the viewer. This is because on one side of the coin, this is a quite potent and solid updating to a truly iconic piece of cinema, but on the other side, there is a feeling that this movie is nevertheless a tad bit unnecessary. Indeed even though this film is quite mixed in how it is constructed due to a slower pace than you might be expecting as well as a general lack of suspense which is traded more for an atmosphere full of dread and a sense of impending doom, it should also be pointed out that film helmer Jonathan Demme does give the film a sense of terrific directorial while the phenomenal cast that he has assembled all bring to the table truly incredible and frighteningly believable performances. Thus it should be noted that although this film works quite well, it is still nowhere close to the original film. Yet I still think that you should give this film a try because of how frighteningly realistic some of the chords that this film strikes may (or may not) have managed to become. Yet even with this positives in its corner, Demme’s updating of a truly terrifying nightmare brought so vividly to life the first time by film icon John Frankenheimer is one that has to settle for being just below the bar set by the master, but when your film is this well-acted and this well brought to life it isn’t hard to be just a little bit satisfied that the film works as much as it ultimately does especially when looking at so many remakes nowadays that simply either start and stop or just plain simply don’t work at all. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Manchurian Candidate “04” a solid 3.5 out of 5.