While keeping the framework of the 1962 original, Jonathan Demme’s remake of John Frankenheimer’s political thriller The Manchurian Candidate (2004) has revamped the plot so as to create parallels between what takes place on screen and current events. The results are mixed at best.
In the new version, adapted by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris from George Axelrod’s 1962 screenplay and Richard Condon’s 1959 Cold War novel, U.S. Army Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) spends his days giving speeches about the heroic deeds of Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), winner of the prestigious Medal of Honor for having saved Marco’s Gulf War platoon during an ambush.
Marco’s nights, however, are considerably less placid. He suffers from a recurring nightmare, in which he finds himself back with his platoon on the night of the ambush. But in this dream, the ambush is not perpetrated by Iraqi fighters, but by much more sinister forces.
In the meantime, through the wily manipulations of his mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), the idealistic Raymond becomes the most-likely next vice president of the United States.
Upon learning of Raymond Shaw’s nomination, Marco, his sanity about to go over the edge, stalks the candidate so as to uncover the whole truth about the ambush and its aftermath.
Top talent can’t save it
Although The Manchurian Candidate 2004 boasts top-line talent both behind and in front of the cameras, with the exception of Meryl Streep’s enjoyable turn as the power-hungry U.S. Senator Shaw (a more humorous version of Angela Lansbury’s mother-from-hell in the original film), most of those involved in the production are either misused or underused.
Denzel Washington, the film’s emotional centerpiece, is a case in point. Despite – or perhaps because of – his obvious efforts, Washington is never fully convincing as a psychologically battered man on the brink of insanity. Liev Schreiber, in an equally difficult if radically different role, is just as inadequate.
Jonathan Demme’s self-conscious touch only adds to the film’s woes. The director shows an enormous fondness for awkward close-ups and is incapable of making the most outlandish plot elements seem nothing short of laughable.
A Manchurian Candidate for the George W. Bush years
In fact, the film’s biggest handicap is its screenplay. If the similarities to the George W. BushWhite House and its corporate cronies are both intriguing and disturbing, an overabundance of plot holes and a dishonest, overly tidy ending – problems also found in the original – severely cripple the picture’s sense of immediacy.
Additionally, The Manchurian Candidate‘s 130-minute running time feels like 130 minutes. Such ponderousness is something that a suspenseful thriller, whether or not it offers a pressing political message, cannot afford.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Director: Jonathan Demme.
Screenplay: Daniel Pyne & Dean Georgaris.
From George Axelrod’s 1962 screenplay and Richard Condon’s 1959 novel.
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The Manchurian Candidate 2004 movie Denzel Washington picture: Paramount Pictures.