Movie review: 'The Manchurian Candidate'

3 stars (out of 4)

"The Manchurian Candidate," Jonathan Demme's remake of the classic 1960s cold-war thriller about a brainwashed political assassin and a rigged presidential convention, is a chilling, very smart melodrama that seems on the mark at times, yet foggy at others.

I liked it, but I was also a bit disappointed. "Candidate" is brilliant in many ways, with sharp direction by Demme, a remarkable cast headed by Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep in the old Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury roles and an interesting, updated screenplay (by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris). Yet Demme's movie about an attempted American coup still lacks the surreal impact of John Frankenheimer's 1962 original--maybe because the nightmares of the past have become all too real today.

The plot is close to Richard Condon's 1959 novel and George Axelrod's 1962 screenplay--though the differences are crucial. It's again about a rich young political heir and Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber, in Laurence Harvey's role), whose heroics were a sham and who is actually a brainwashed zombie, programmed by sinister forces to aid an illicit takeover of the American government.

The war, though, is different--1952 Korea in the original; 1991 Kuwait and the Gulf War here--and so is the takeover. And Raymond is a Democrat, not %a Republican, which somewhat muddies the original story's unabashed anti-ultra-right slant. To be fair, the politics of both the novel and the '62 movie were unpredictable and volatile too; the villains were simultaneously reactionary Republicans and Communist tools. But Demme's film does have the same main villain, Raymond's voracious mother, Eleanor (Streep)--who is now a U.S. Senator (instead of a Senator's wife)--and the same hero, Raymond's old company commander, Ben Marco (Washington).

Marco is again a brave but confused Army guy, trying to make sense of his recurring nightmares about a shadowy torture-murder session involving Raymond and their comrades. Demme's film once again follows Ben's increasingly scary investigation into what really happened in Kuwait and what really lies behind Raymond--in the midst of a hectic presidential campaign and convention where the coup plot snaps into focus.

Washington is a natural in Sinatra's old role, and he plays it with all the "Chairman of the Board's" charisma and camera presence and a bit more naturalism and bristling intensity. He also has a romantic co-star (Kimberly Elise of Demme's "Beloved" as Rosie) who makes almost as much sensual impact as Janet Leigh, the original's unforgettable Rosie, in less screen time.

But it's one of the major disappointments of this movie that Demme and the writers don't match or even approach the great nightmare sequence of Frankenheimer's film: that black-and-white dream-masterpiece in which Ben kept drifting through warped, ever-shifting hallucinatory images of a benign ladies' club members at a horticultural lecture morphing into Chinese communist scientists. That scene, as much as anything, is what made the original "Candidate" a classic--and Frankenheimer pulled it off without digital effects. Demme's equivalent pales in comparison.

The original's second scariest element, though, is well matched here. Lansbury, as Raymond's mother, was controlling, relentless and utterly two-faced--and, in Condon's novel, an openly incestuous monster. Streep plays Eleanor with vicious high style and the smile of a shark disguised as an Easter lily.

Demme's movie is just as sophisticated and knowing as Frankenheimer's, but it isn't as hip or daring. It doesn't haunt your mind or stir your sense of dread the way the '62 movie did--and it lacks almost totally the earlier film's piercing, oddball satire and humor. Perhaps what seemed outlandish and satirical then is just all too plausible today.

Though the new "Candidate" stacks up perfectly well against today's political thrillers (including "The Bourne Supremacy"), you may keep wondering why it isn't more extreme, more nightmarish. That's the legacy, though. Frankenheimer's "Candidate" ushered in an era of grave national crises and racy movie political paranoia; this one simply rides the wave.

`The Manchurian Candidate'

Directed by Jonathan Demme; written by Daniel Pyne, Dean Georgaris, based on the film screenplay by George Axelrod and the novel by Richard Condon; photographed by Tak Fujimoto; edited by Carol Littleton, Craig McKay; production designed by Kristi Zea; music by Rachel Portman (featuring Wyclef Jean); produced by Tina Sinatra, Scott Rudin, Demme, Ilona Herzberg. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:10. MPAA rating: R (violence and some language).

Ben Marco - Denzel Washington
Eleanor Shaw - Meryl Streep
Raymond Shaw - Liev Schreiber
Sen. Thomas Jordan - Jon Voight
Rosie - Kimberly Elise
Al Melvin - Jeffrey Wright

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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