The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

I needed a beer to wash down this sour lemon of a movie. This humorless and nonsensical update of The Manchurian Candidate –a total misread of Frankenheimer’s classic original–never quite engages, devolving the original’s camp and satire into self-serious melodrama. Demme’s contemporized interpretation of the Condon novel is a potboiler about how Gulf War soldiers become pawns in a government-corporate brainwashing conspiracy whose aim is to rig the presidential election. The overbearing mother, the mad scientist, the nightmares that contradict the distorted realities of what actually happened, etc.–all of this admittedly silly 50s B-movie nonsense, played so tongue-in-cheek in the original, comes bedecked in the guise of a modern, sleek political thriller. Unbecoming of a thriller, however, we find here no tension, no sense of urgency (so what if some global conglomerate manipulated a candidate in order to control the presidency? It happens all the time anyway and without NAZI-esque mind control experiments!)

In Demme’s version of what was originally an on-target skewering of Cold War paranoia, I found myself continually asking what the stakes in the movie were. What does Manchurian Global–that’s how Demme’s movie foists the “Manchurian” of the title into its story-world–want that is so especially nefarious that they need to resort to this kind of desperate, high-tech legerdemain? As for the performances, they’re generally fine–suitably solemn and bewildered when called for–with Liev Shrieber as Shaw, the manipulated heir-apparent, coming off best. But screenwriters Pyne and Georgaris’ updating of George Axelrod’s script ultimately botches the final reveal–the one that prompts Shaw to disregard orders and follow his own code. Silly and slow, this re-make of the landmark thriller might’ve been digestible were it not for the ludicrously overplayed melodrama, along with Demme’s plodding pace and so-close-you-can-smell-the-pores shooting style, neither of which perform an effective function. Avoid it if you don’t want to waste 2-plus hours and to keep your memories of the Sinatra-Harvey-Lansbury powerhouse unsullied.

Grade: D

Directed by: Jonathan Demm
Written by: Daniel Pyne, Dean Georgaris
Cast: Denzel Washington, Jeffrey Wright, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Adam LeFevre

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