Updated but not better

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, July 29, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

First things first. If you have never seen “The Manchurian Candidate,” the 1962 classic about a brainwashed ex-soldier mixed up in political skullduggery, then get thee to a video store. It’s an American classic, an exciting and provocative picture far ahead of its time.

That film, directed by John Frankenheimer from a Richard Condon novel, seeped into the culture. The film gained notoriety after the Kennedy assassination and was withdrawn from circulation for many years. When rumors persisted that John McCain might be some sort of “Manchurian candidate” based on his time in a North Vietnamese prison, McCain (a very hip guy) jokingly mentioned Angela Lansbury turning over a queen of diamonds – a reference to a key trigger from the film.

Now the movie is remade, updated from its original McCarthy-era, post-Korean War setting. The tortured Frank Sinatra role is played by Denzel Washington: He’s Maj. Bennett Marco, a Gulf War veteran who can’t stop thinking about a murky episode from the desert.

His sergeant from the war, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber in the Laurence Harvey part), has meanwhile ascended the political ladder. He’s not exactly cuddly, but his Medal of Honor and his hard-charging, conservative U.S. senator mom (Meryl Streep) have kicked him into contention for the vice presidential nomination.

Marco senses this is dangerous, because his nightmares tell him something very strange happened while his unit was ambushed in Kuwait. Soon he’s spouting more conspiracy theories than Michael Moore on a manic day.

Director Jonathan Demme, of “Silence of the Lambs” fame, has done radical things with the plot, beyond updating it. Fans of the 1962 film will notice that Raymond has no stepfather here; Raymond himself has become the political candidate. And brainwashing is out. There’s a technological advance that substitutes here, though it has not improved the believability of the idea.

And, of course, the Cold War has frozen over. So the new villain in this paranoid scenario is … a corporation. Yes, the giant Manchurian Global corporation is at the root of all problems.

For a while, Demme creates a taut world. If you’re going to remake a classic, you might as well mix it all up, and some of the new twists are clever. Demme repeats images of figures moving behind glass, and sounds half-heard through walls, that suggest an uncomfortable half-dreaming, half-waking state.

Washington makes an able protagonist, and Schreiber shares with Laurence Harvey a key quality to playing Raymond: an innate lack of warmth. The excellent Kimberly Elise (who made “Beloved” with Demme) takes the old Janet Leigh role, and Jon Voight and Jeffrey Wright fill in smaller parts.

I have enjoyed Meryl Streep’s recent run of supporting roles, so I was relishing the thought of her playing the ultimate monster mom. Oddly enough, she doesn’t quite nail it. Very smart, but a little too broad, Streep telegraphs the part, although her delivery and the vague intimations of Hillary Clinton give the movie some humor. (The 1962 picture was a perversely funny film.)

The weaknesses of the re-drawn story line become apparent in the film’s final third. If you’ve never seen the original, this will be less glaring, and Demme’s skills are strong enough to build tension. But something has been fatally simplified here, while the original remains disturbingly complex.

Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep star in “The Manchurian Candidate.”

“The Manchurian Candidate” HHH

Something’s missing: A remake of the 1962 classic, with much updated and changed. Gulf War veteran Denzel Washington believes political candidate Liev Schreiber may have something wrong with him, something that happened during the war. Jonathan Demme builds tension, but the film lacks the perversity and humor of the original. With Meryl Streep.

Rated: R rating is for violence, language.

Now showing:

“The Manchurian Candidate” HHH

Something’s missing: A remake of the 1962 classic, with much updated and changed. Gulf War veteran Denzel Washington believes political candidate Liev Schreiber may have something wrong with him, something that happened during the war. Jonathan Demme builds tension, but the film lacks the perversity and humor of the original. With Meryl Streep.

Rated: R rating is for violence, language.

Now showing: Alderwood, Everett 9, Galaxy, Marysville, Mountlake, Stanwood, Guild 45th, Meridian, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade.

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