Film Reviews

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

By • Jul 30th, 2004 •

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Paramount Pictures
Rated R / Running time: 130 min

THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY

Call me a die-hard, but I don’t eat oleo, and when it comes to remakes of Hollywood classics, I invariably opt for the reel thing. In almost every instance, the re-dos don’t measure up, and I’m left with an acerbic reaction that makes my innards curdle. Like those What’s wrong with this picture? puzzles, I’m puzzled too. WHY did they bother?

In recent memory, there’ve been a surge of them, ranging from uninspired to flagrantly flawed: i.e. Rollerball, Psycho, The Time Machine, Around the World in 80 Days, Four Feathers, Cheaper By the Dozen, The Stepford Wives, and The Truth About Charlie, an ill-conceived redo of 1963’s Charade. And that’s just a short list. (See the end of this review for more, either upcoming or in the works.)

To the above, you can now add a third category: “Not bad, but no classic”—a slot comfortably filled by Jonathan Demme’s remake of the 1962 masterpiece. There’s no contest here. It’s John Frankenheimer’s original, a haunting political thriller starring Frank Sinatra (as Ben Marco), Angela Lansbury (as Mrs. Shaw), Laurence Harvey (as Raymond Shaw) and Janet Leigh (as Rosie), that deservedly remains #1 in the memory banks of cinemaphiles.

Plot: Years after the Gulf War, Army Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), is fraught by recurrent nightmares about his platoon’s baffling 3-day disappearance in Kuwait. Though he returned from battle and was instrumental in getting Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Schrieber) a Congressional Medal of Honor for extreme heroism during that time, his dreams tell him otherwise: that it never happened. In fact, he strongly doubts Shaw’s credibility—or his own sanity.

He’s an emotional wreck, which the medics chalk up to Gulf War Syndrome. But when he meets former army buddy Al Melvin (Wright)—who’s even in worse shape, Al says he’s been having the same god-awful dreams. Namely, instead of Shaw saving them all at the front, for those 3 days, they were all in a lab, hooked up to electrodes running through their scalps, and that both Shaw and Marco killed two of their comrades.

Paranoia? Maybe yes, maybe not. The film, then, is Marco’s desperate search for the truth, made even more crucial when Shaw, now a U.S. Senator, becomes the Vice Presidential candidate of the United States. It’s a frantic, frenetic process of discovery, taking him from flophouses in New York to the highest ‘n vilest echelons of business and politics in Washington, D.C. En route, his greatest fear becomes a reality, including brainwashing, mindbending mumbo jumbo, murder and mayhem.

The Good News: Oh sure, this version will satisfy—especially if you hadn’t seen the first—and will certainly please contemporary audiences raised on shoot-em-up bang-bangs, and surround-sounds that deafen the senses. The pace is rapid; Tak Fujimoto’s camera work is as expert as ever, and the A-list cast are as good as it gets.

They all perform skillfully—and, in the case of Meryl Streep, superlatively. No surprise. She’s a hoot as Ellie, a bad seed of a U.S. Senator from New York, who upstages everyone else whenever she’s onscreen. Like her predecessor (Angela Lansbury), she’s also a mother from hell, who purposely messes up the mind of her son Raymond, and manipulates him into a heartbeat away from the U.S. presidency.

Mommie Dearest’s devious purpose: to benefit the coffers and control of Manchurian Global— a multinational conglomerate that profits from the business of war (and here, read “Halliburton”)—a “shadow government” that feels comfortable with the idea of “owning” the President. (With the Communists no longer our arch enemy— as was in the original—big business becomes the bad guys.)

But don’t get any wrong ideas. Unlike Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, this isn’t about partisan politics. The film, released during the hoopla of the current nominating conventions, plays it both ways. No party is named, and aside from taking a jab at the GOP via obviously suggesting Dick Cheney’s former bailiwick, it also takes a stab at the Democrats, via Streep’s over the top stiletto performance as a Hillary look-alike.

The Bad News: In a nutshell—the script. For those who saw the earlier version, this re-do falls short on most counts.

George Axelrod’s original screenplay, based on Richard Condon’s novel— filled with enormous suspense and, to this day, utterly unforgettable characters—is arguably the greatest political/paranoid thriller of all time.

Unfortunately, here, it’s been subverted to a shallow level of middling intrigue. Though the basic plot remains the same, locations and significant plot points have been discarded. No games of solitaire or Queens of Diamonds. Characters have been revised—or otherwise discarded—by a cutesy update that not even the exceptional cast—fine actors all, can save. And that includes Jon Voigt, Kimberly Elise (in the Janet Leigh girlfriend role), and cameos by Dean Stockwell, Miguel Ferrer, Bill Irwin, Roger Corman, Ted Levine, Al Franken and Bruno Ganz as Delp, a mysterious scientist who tries to help Marco short-circuit the mind control chips installed in his back. ??? Don’t even bother to ask. It doesn’t really matter.

The Bottom Line: It’ll probably make a mint at the box office, but by the end of the year—after the producers laugh their way to the bank—it’ll be just another action-adventure film, joining such also-rans as the Rollerball redo and deservedly lost to memory. My advice: rent the original.


Trivia: The film was produced by Scott Rudin and Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina, who owns the film’s rights. After JFK was assassinated, her dad bought it and withdrew the film from circulation. He and his Rat Pack cronies were close friends of Kennedy, and the film’s subject, about a planned assassination of a U.S. presidential candidate, was too close to home. But much later, he and Tina thought it would be a good time to remake it, and after 12 years—and following the 1998 death of her dad, she worked to bring the new version to the screen.


So New?

A list of some Hollywood remakes of major oldies due for release, currently filming or in the planning stage (stars included, where known):

Shall We Dance? (w/Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere), House of Wax, To Catch a Thief, All the King’s Men (w/Sean Penn), Alfie (w/Jude Law), The Poseidon Adventure, The Flight of the Phoenix (w/Dennis Quaid), The Pink Panther (w/Steve Martin), King Kong (w/Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody), Fear Itself (remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs), The Producers (w/Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick), The Longest Yard (w/Adam Sandler), Assault on Precinct 13 (remake of remake of John Carpenter’s thriller, itself a remake of Rio Bravo), Gambit (w/Jennifer Aniston), Herbie: Fully Loaded (Disney’s remake of Herbie the Love Bug), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (remake of Willie Wonka…w/Johnny Depp), The Warriors, War of the Worlds (Spielberg’s redo of the 1953 sci-fi adventure wTom Cruise), Logan’s Run, The Incredible Shrinking Man (w/Eddie Murphy), and The Ten Commandments.

All we can do is keep fingers xx’d they won’t disappoint.


An Afterthought: With the powers-that-be in Hollywood apparently bereft of new ideas, may I respectfully suggest the following remakes for their consideration:

• The Wizard of Oz –
starring Jennifer Lopez as Dorothy, Adam Sandler as the Scarecrow, Steve Martin as the Tin Woodman, Benji as Toto, and if he’ll be available, Donald Rumsfeld as the Wizard—except this time, Dorothy is carried by L.A. freeway exhaust and dropped into Microsoft’s warehouse where she battles winged minichips, all in the grasp of the Wicked Witch, played by Madonna.

• Casablanca –
starring Ben Affleck as Rick, Britney Spears as Ilsa, Bill Murray as Victor Laszlo, Michael Feinstein as Sam, Michael Moore as Signor Ferrari (the Sydney Greenstreet role), and Matt Damon as Louie (Peter Lorre’s)—set in the Weiss House, a café along the Gaza Strip.


Directed by Jonathan Demme. Based upon a novel by Richard Condon. Screenplay by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, based upon the Film Screenplay by George Axelrod.

Cast: Denzel Washington (Ben Marco); Meryl Streep (Eleanor Shaw), Liev Schreiber (Raymond Shaw), Kimberly Elise (Rosie), Vera Farmiga (Jocelyn Jordan), Jon Voight (Sen. Thomas Jordan), David Keeley (Agent Evan Anderson), Jeffrey Wright (Al Melvin), Bruno Ganz (Delp).
Supporting Actors: Dean Stockwell, Bill Irwin, Al Franken, Roger Corman, Ted Levine, Miguel Ferrer.
Produced by Tina Sinatra, Scott Rudin; Produced by Jonathan Demme and Ilona Herzberg.
Dir. of Photography: Tak Fujimoto, ASC; Editor: Carol Littleton, A.C.E. and Craig McKay, A.C.E.; Prod. Design: Kristi Zea; Costume Designer: Albert Wolsky; Music: Rachel Portman.

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