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THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright, Ted Levine, Bruno Ganz, Simon McBurney
Director: Jonathan Demme
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 129 Minutes
Release Date: December 21, 2004

“Raymond, did they tell you what it is they want you to do? That’s what I gotta find out. We gotta find out what’s gonna happen, where it’s gonna happen...”

“Are we friends, Ben? I wanna believe we were friends.”

“We are connected and that’s something NOBODY can take from us. You could’ve had me locked up but you didn’t. That’s proof that there’s something deep inside. There’s a part that they can’t get to. And it’s deep inside us, and that’s where the truth is. That’s our only hope. That’s what you and me need to tap into, and that’s what you and I are gonna use to take them out, Raymond. We don’t have much time, please.”

“I thought you were smarter than that. You don’t think they saw this coming, Ben? You don’t think they factored you in? I am the enemy, Major Marco.”

Film ****

Remaking such a great piece of work is a task that should either be done with extreme caution, or not done at all. Such is the case with the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate, which is the mother of all paranoid political thrillers. But thankfully, director Jonathan Demme has not dishonored the memory of John Frankenheimer’s original film and has reinvented the film into a thriller that is just as absorbing and gripping. In addition, this new version may come off as even creepier.

Truth be told, if there was a single film to come out in 2004 that was an effective look at politics, it was this film and not Michael Moore’s movie. I’m not wanting to implicate in any way that what’s depicted here is a statement of current politics. In fact, to look at this film from a political perspective is too absurd even for words. No matter how many times it is retold, The Manchurian Candidate should be observed as a classic tale of a chilling act of treason attempted by certain people in power. In both versions, Republicans and Democrats are both seen as flawed parties; there is no better side of the two.

The action of the story has shifted from the Korean War to that of a Persian Gulf War in 1991. The plot, however, is pretty much faithful to the original movie. The hero is Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), a veteran of Desert Storm who is being haunted by horrendous nightmares about something that might have happened one night to him and his platoon, but the details are difficult to recollect.

After a sudden encounter with a soldier named Melvin (Jeffrey Wright) heightens Marco’s suspicions even more. The only thing that seems to resonate with Marco is the moment a soldier in his patrol risked his life to save the group of men during an enemy attack. Those actions resulted in the soldier receiving a Medal of Honor for bravery.

The soldier in question is Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) who has just been nominated to be the next vice president of the United States. The nomination comes as a surprise not only to Marco, but to the political community as well. The gesture is obviously a result of pressure from Shaw’s domineering mother, Sen. Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep).

As the movie progresses, so does Marco’s ever expanding suspicions about what could possibly happen if what his nerves are telling him turn out to be true. When he discovers that a chip has been implanted right under his skin, he fears that Shaw may have something similar implanted in him. He tries to confront Shaw about the matter, and before long Marco’s actions have him perceived as a crazed lunatic.

In my mind, Jonathan Demme has done something here that few filmmakers will ever be able to accomplish in that he has created one of the best remakes ever to be made. Demme’s uncompromising vision allows this new version to be twice as psychologically effective. The sequences of the soldiers undergoing the brainwash treatment are some of the most frightening moments I’ve seen in any movie.

Demme’s trademark use of characters looking straight into the camera during crucial dialogue sequences, as if talking right to the audience, has never been put to better use. One such scene is one of the most harrowingly gripping scenes of the year, where in which Marco makes a final plead for Shaw’s help in stopping the unthinkable from happening. This particular scene concludes with a nice little twist on the climax, which is one of a couple differences from the original movie.

Of course, for the movie to be set in the present, the villains of the story would have to change.  Since communism is no longer existing among us, let’s hope so, Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have found a fitting substitute. Where as Manchurian was a underground communist party in the original, a high-powered billion-dollar corporation named Manchurian Global, who is funding the experiments on the soldiers.

The cast of actors is in a word, perfect. The star studded lineup delivers stunning performances every bit as good as those in the 62 version. For Denzel Washington, this is something of a revelation, and the actor’s best performance since his Oscar winning turn in Training Day. The sole notion that Washington, who we’re used to seeing playing more strong willed and heroic types, is now portraying someone who is powerless is a real treat.

But for my money, the movie belongs to Liev Schreiber in the role of the puppet controlled by strings of a higher power. Every inch of sadness within Shaw, as well as audience sympathy, is still in tact. It’s a strong supporting role for who I consider to be a much underrated actor. On a side note, Schreiber bares a close resemblance to Laurence Harvey, who played Shaw in the original version.

To put it simply, though I don’t suggest that such other classic films get a makeover, the 2004 update of The Manchurian Candidate is the rarest of cases where the remake, or as I like to call it, reinvention manages to inflict just as much of a suspenseful and creepy effect as that of the original source. Credit Jonathan Demme for accomplishing the near-impossible and the strong cast of actors for elevating this timeless account of political corruption to newer heights.

Video ****

Paramount has triumphed once again with an outstanding and superb looking presentation. The anamorphic picture is one of flawless perfection. The image is thoroughly clear, no matter what tones are used. The work of Demme and his longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto has never looked more amazing. The strong detail of the picture never lets up for a second.

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix is noting short of mind blowing. Though this is a film more dependent on dialogue more than action, there are moments where the digital sound is put to extraordinary use. The scenes of the brain-washing experiments incorporate some creepy sound techniques, where in which all the channels deliver the effect. Dialogue is nicely clear, and numerous set pieces, including a climatic political rally, offer even more dynamic sound power.

Features ****

Even though you won’t find a Special Edition label on this release, Paramount has certainly included more than enough extras for it to be considered such. This superbly loaded disc includes a commentary track with Jonathan Demme and co-screenwriter Daniel Pyne. Also featured are two documentaries; “The Enemy Within: Inside The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Cast of The Manchurian Candidate”. Also included are 5 Deleted/Extended scenes with optional commentary, outtakes with optional commentary, Liev Schrieber’s screen test, political pundits with optional commentary, and bonus previews.

Summary:

The quality of remakes are hard to predict, but the new take on The Manchurian Candidate is sheer proof that even a classic can be remade into an equally monumental piece of cinematic work. Despite the little changes, the effect of the movie is still the same in that it is fully gripping and impossible to shake.

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