Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Manchurian Candidate 2004

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 September 2004 at AMC Fenway #11 (first-run)

Folks who watch movies beyond new releases will have knee-jerk reactions when they hear certain movies are being remade. When I heard Demme was remaking Charade with Thandie Newton and Will Smith (later to be replaced by Mark Freakin' Wahlberg), I immediately thought "stupid idea", although I wound up liking The Truth About Charlie. I did not have the same worries about The Manchurian Candidate.

I like the original movie, but I found it a little dated when I first saw it. Not so much the subject matter (although the remake makes a good decision in making the threat internal rather than external), but the style. The way films were shot and edited in the 1960s meant that the dreams and memories were kind of set off from the rest of the movie, rather than intruding like they could in a modern film. Laurence Harvey also seemed to effete and pathetic.

The remake doesn't really improve on the first adaptation of Richard Condon's novel, but it does different things well. The tension in the first was generated by the idea of sleeper agents, but that sort of xenophobia wouldn't play so well today, either with American audiences or a Hollywood establishment more dependant on international revenue, so the new one works on the increasing instability of protagonist Ben Marco (Denzel Washington).

Also, where Angela Lansbury gave the most commanding performance in the first, there's nobody who really grabs the movie in this one. Meryl Streep is good in Lansbury's role, and outright steals some scenes, but the best performance comes from Liev Schreiber as Raymond Shaw, the title Vice-Presidential candidate. It's a pretty nifty accomplishment, since he's saddled with a script that happily makes him whatever is needed at the time. Here he's a mama's boy, here he's deeply resentful; here he's got to time for Marco, here he seeks Marco out. Schreiber also does a fine job making Shaw standoffish, making the testimonials of his troop to his warmth seem flat-out wrong.

Demme's Candidate glosses over the science-fictional aspects, basically asking the audience to accept that the implants work for mind control, although there don't seem to be any effects when one is taken out. There are a couple more plot holes, too. On the plus side, the flashback scenes are believably hellish without being given any air of unreality, and Demme makes a couple nifty decisions with music, especially during the convention scene, where the song and the action are in direct contradiction to each other. I think the movie might have been better if it had ended there; it suffers from an overlong resolution after the climax.

The 2004 Manchurian Candidate is a good movie, but I don't think it will displace the original. In five years, mentioning the name will once again call to mind the names of Frankenheimer, Sinatra, and Lansbury as opposed to Demme, Washington, and Streep, though the new movie will be worth discussing as it relates to millennial paranoia and election worries. It's a decent diversion, but no substitute for the original.

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