Here’s a remake that truly wasn’t just a re-hash of the original and matches the deep-seeded paranoia and creepiness of its predecessor. It’s also every bit as forced as most remakes and stands meekly in the large shadow cast by the first film bearing the title.
The 1962 “Manchurian Candidate” firmly remains a classic American film, depicting our fears of infiltration by “reds” and the power of brain-washing during the Cold War era. It starred Frank Sinatra as a war vet whose friend and fellow soldier (played by the haunting Laurence Harvey) had his mind altered while a POW. The film created a great deal of fear by gradually revealing how vast the central conspiracy was and by showing us the mindset of someone having their “brain washed.” The sequence in question, demonstrating how a dull lecture on gardening tips was really a smoke screen for a horrible experiment, is still frightening.
“The Manchurian Candidate” was justifiably rated PG-13 when re-released in theaters in 1987, after being unavailable for years (rumored to be due to Sinatra’s discomfort to the film’s subject matter and the later assassination of President Kennedy). As directed by John Frankenheimer, it showcases the finest film work by Sinatra and Angela Lansbury and, while dated a bit, it still can shock and entertain today as much as it did in the 60’s.
Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake that no one asked for seems to get off on the wrong foot from the very start, with Wyclef Jean’s awful remake of “Fortunate Son” clanging over the opening credits. Thankfully, the film overall isn’t as ill-advised as the introductory song (which, bizarrely, also plays over the end credits. Didn’t anyone listen to the track before putting it on the soundtrack?).
The setting is now post-9/11 America and Denzel Washington plays a Gulf War vet whose platoon mates all share similarly unsettling nightmares and warped memories. This time, the conspiracy goes even further, with the real enemy being highly connected politicians, powerful businessmen and seemingly harmless bystanders and family members. The true threat is no longer The Enemy overseas but the easily corruptible, dog-eat-dog sharks in suits whose survival has been purchased.
Liev Schreiber plays the title character this time and he’s wonderful. Few actors can look so handsome and so capable of bad things as Schreiber, who’s every bit as touching and tragic as Harvey was in the original. Washington is playing unhinged, gradually mounting insanity, in one of his few, refreshing turns devoid of movie star charm. Washington captures a man living with crushing fear and limitless paranoia, which brings out an offbeat, playful side of the actor.
Speaking of spooky, Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is the film’s real star. As in Demme’s previous “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” Fujimoto’s camera work evokes a fish eyed lens view of the action, making swoops of the camera both perfectly smooth and queasily odd.
Fujimoto shoots the actors in a way that makes it seem like they’re speaking right to one another; they’re not. We’re actually seeing the actor’s faces, in tight close ups, speaking directly to the camera. This technique makes everyone seem suspicious, as though the characters were all Body Snatchers wearing human masks. The cinematography and ambition of the screenplay are the stand-outs.
Demme assembled a reliably solid supporting cast (everyone from Vera Fermiga, Al Franken and Roger Corman pop up in supporting roles). While Kimberly Elise is especially sharp in a repeat of Janet Leigh’s mysterious role in the original, no one here, not even Washington, can surpass what came before. Meryl Streep’s performance, in particular, comes up short; Streep may be one of our greatest living actresses but she’s visibly pushing too hard here, unsure of whether to go over the top or dialing back and punching up the satirical quality of her lines. She tries to do both and it doesn’t work. Lansbury owns this role, Ms. Streep is merely borrowing it for a weekend.
I applaud Demme’s efforts to hone a smart, chilling summer movie for grown-ups, that attempts to feed on their worst fears. The overall result is hit and miss but better than I remembered and worth seeing for the unforgettably bonkers sight of Washington attempting to bite an implant out of a co-star’s back.