The Manchurian Candidate

Overegged and frankly unnecessary remake, muddying an already obscure yarn.

Released in 2004, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 02 Dec 2004 by Scott Morris
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Well, this is isn't a comic book adaptation so therefore it must be a remake of an older film, such is the way things are heading these days. The screenplay for this effort is an adaptation of a screenplay adapted from a novel, and as it happens the flick ends up as messy as it's route on to the screen sounds. After a spot of unpleasantness prior to the start of the Gulf War, a recon patrol headed by all round good egg Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) goes missing for three days only to be lead out of the desert by Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) after an act of great personal heroism sees him dispatch a would be enemy ambush single handedly. What a guy. One Congressional Medal of Honor (mumble grumble Americans mumble grumble what have they got against the letter 'u' anyway mumble grumble) later and Shaw is discharged back into the world of politics his family had been so carefully grooming him for.

Certainly he's got the pedigree. Raymond's father was a senator before shuffling off his mortal coil, and his overbearing harridan of a mother Eleanor is also a highly regarded Senator so it's not much of a shock when he's elected to office, and even less so when Ray's mom decides to capitalise on his military record to manoeuvre him onto the Vice Presidential candidate ticket. Meanwhile, the remaining members of the patrol are suffering some odd effects that the brass are writing off as Gulf War Syndrome, but Marco gradually comes to believe that there's a little more to it. A recurring dream apparently shared by all of the patrol points to something a little more sinister.

As Marco starts digging around to the displeasure of Eleanor Shaw and his commanding officers, he grows increasingly obsessed and paranoid about uncovering what really happened to his men and who's been tampering with his neurons. The trail would seem to point back to the world bestriding, economy dwarfing Manchurian Global corporation, Michael Moore's nightmare made flesh. Any company that's raising private armies to hire out for wedding receptions, barmitzvahs, security details and revolutions is worthy of suspicion, and Manchurian is no exception.

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You may well already know the rest, after all this isn't a new story by any stretch of the imagination but we'll leave things there for any uninitiated amongst us. Should you be one of them, it's probably a good thing if you want to get the most out of the movie. It's living in the shadow of it's predecessor much to it's detriment, but that's hardly a consideration if you've not seen it. Denzel Washington rarely turns in a bad performance and this is no exception - nothing that's going to bother the Oscar board but he keeps everything moving along by dint of charisma and effort.

We'll forgo the ranting that an appearance of Meryl Streep in a film would typically provoke as while she's as grating as ever, her character is supposed to be an irritant so that dovetails nicely. Jon Voight shows up with an affable appearance as the perhaps the last remaining decent Senator Thomas Jordan and it's always good to see Miguel Ferrer in a role, if only to remind us of the classic "War! It's fantastic!" line from Hot Shots: Part Deux. Which gets that out of the way before I go onto the main issues I have with this film, of which the titular candidate is inextricably linked.

Liev Schreiber's performance as Raymond Shaw is largely flat, lifeless and unmemorable but that goes with the territory - Shaw's supposed to be a socially awkward, elitist, unlovable guy and the script goes to great lengths early doors to point this out. Which is fair enough, but it's also somehow forgotten this as soon as it gets in the way of the re-jigged plot developments. In the original, Shaw is intentionally a 'grey man', a largely forgettable man who wouldn't attract suspicion and for that purpose the prescribed personality is fine.

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Now things have changed. Matters are worse. Now we have Shaw as the premier political candidate. In this day and age of politics personality counts perhaps as much as policies, and you're not going to get a sniff of a Vice Presidential ticket unless you can communicate effectively and strike a chord with the public. And funnily enough Shaw does just that, rallying the public to his unspecified party in the run up to an election. You can have one version of Shaw or the other, but both presents one more obstacle to believability in a film that's already pushing it's luck.

Nitpicking? Perhaps, but in a film where the plot arc relies on brainwashing from evil communists corporations to plant a sleeper in the White House it's already using up most of it's suspension of disbelief quotient in something that's still making some effort to be taken seriously as a thriller. This is why the remake becomes worse than the original - the attempt at updating it and focusing more on Shaw and Marco's characters seems a solid one but the execution is lacking. The earlier effort seems more logical, comparatively at least and, the far more effective Angela 'Murder, She Wrote' Lansbury as the evil mother and probably Frank Sinatra's most accomplished and charismatic cinematic appearance, which makes it a far more satisfying experience.

Should we continually hold this up to it's earlier incarnation, which has a pretty decent claim to 'classic' status and an absolute shoe in for the 'damn good film' status? Perhaps not, this is a new film for a new age but ultimately the minor rejig of the same formula doesn't work as well as we'd hoped. If you're going to remake a movie you'd better have a good reason or a better film to avoid criticism, and this doesn't. As mentioned, it's a watchable enough flick and probably one that will be more enjoyable if you've never seen it's forebear, but we still recommend that you dig out the earlier movie than see this. The obfustication introduced does not make it more intelligent or more enjoyable.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Jonathan Demme
Cast list:
Denzel Washington (Ben Marco)
Meryl Streep (Eleanor Shaw)
Liev Schreiber (Raymond Shaw)
Jeffrey Wright (Al Melvin)
Kimberly Elise (Rosie)
Jon Voight (Senator Thomas Jordan)
Ted Levine (Colonel Howard)
Miguel Ferrer (Colonel Garret)