August 06, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate

Directed by Jonathan Demme Starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Updating John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cultural monument, Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate is a timely and effective political thriller in its own right. Frankenheimer’s Cold War conspiracy debuted amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis, and foreshadowed the shootings of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and George Wallace that would later change the outcomes of American presidential elections in 1968 and 1972. Demme’s conglomerate conspiracy has an equally well-timed release concurrent with last week’s Democratic National Convention, but it’s unlikely to have the same impact since Fahrenheit 9/11 has already changed the present cultural climate.

This soldier-programmed-into-political-assassin remake is rather faithful to Frankenheimer’s original while also drawing from The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 corporate variation on the Manchurian theme. Changes are inevitable, as Communism no longer poses an immediate threat. Manchurian Global, an amalgam of Halliburton and The Carlyle Group, substitutes for the Communists as the villain. Exploiting fears of terrorist threats takes the place of Communist witch-hunts.

Faux war hero Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) himself is now the vice-presidential candidate, replacing his McCarthy-esque stepfather who is notably absent here. Shaw’s venomous mother (Meryl Streep) is a senator herself, beyond being just a shadowy string-puller. Shaw and his commanding officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) have been abducted during Operation Desert Storm instead of the Korean War, and brainwashed with high-tech implants rather than hypnosis.

Candidate is the first true thriller and perhaps the most successful film that Demme has made since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. It still alarmingly signals a creative dry spell, as this is his second remake in a row (following his misguided Charade-remake The Truth About Charlie – his documentary The Agronomist notwithstanding). While very engaging and entertaining, Demme’s version doesn’t quite measure up to Frankenheimer’s original. Several key scenes fall short here, including the pivotal nightmare sequence and the precisely paced climactic assassination. The new screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris often lifts entire scenes from the source material, but with sporadic shorthand that seems to presume the viewers’ familiarity with the original.

The remake appropriately incorporates governmental branches such as the FBI and the U.S. Army as part of the conspiracy. Its visual vocabulary – complete with surveillance cameras, colour-coded terrorism alerts and some graphic details recalling Lambs and even Ridley Scott’s Hannibal – does help intensify the paranoid atmosphere. Supporting performances by Kimberly Elise and Jeffrey Wright add significant depth to their respective characters. Another decided improvement is the omission of the original’s offensive racial stereotypes and its ridiculous kung-fu fight scene.

Demme’s Candidate would almost be complete if instead of entirely omitting the character of Shaw’s demagogue stepfather, it modernized him to a Rush Limbaugh-type political pundit. Something to try if yet another remake is unavoidable.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.