Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright, Ted Levine, Charles Napier, Roger Corman, Dean Stockwell, Robyn Hitchcock, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Mackie, Bill Irwin, Miguel Ferrer, Tracey Walter"/>
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With: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright, Ted Levine, Charles Napier, Roger Corman, Dean Stockwell, Robyn Hitchcock, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Mackie, Bill Irwin, Miguel Ferrer, Tracey Walter
Written by: Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, based on the novel by Richard Condon and the screenplay by George Axelrod
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
MPAA Rating: R for violence and some language
Running Time: 129
Date: 07/22/2004

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Party Crashers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I watched both versions of The Manchurian Candidate within a few days of each other and found that John Frankenheimer's 1962 original still has a pretty vicious satirical bite. Ironically, the original seems more relevant to what's going on today than does the new version. Director Jonathan Demme deliberately strips the story of its satire -- he never even mentions the words "Democrat" or "Republican" -- and concentrates solely on the thriller elements.

However, Demme remains an excellent actor's director and he coaxes several superb performances from the new cast. Meanwhile screenwriters Daniel Pyne (The Sum of All Fears) and Dean Georgaris (Paycheck) take this opportunity to make up for a few small problems inherent in the original.

The story takes a few small liberties for the sake of updating. Manchuria no longer refers to a region in China, but to an American mega-corporation with fingers in many political pies. Instead of a ladies' flower club and Frankenheimer's extraordinary 360-degree reveal, Demme presents the hypnotism sequences as excruciating nightmares. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) still emerges as the unit's hero, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, and his commander Captain Marco (Denzel Washington) suffers from horrible dreams.

Instead of going to work for a newspaper, Shaw now becomes a United States senator, sitting next to his senator mother (Meryl Streep) but on opposite party lines. The Joseph McCarthy-like Senator Iselin no longer exists. Now Shaw is the party's choice for a presidential puppet.

Marco still meets a girl (Kimberly Elise) on a train, but this time she does more than tend his wounds and fawn over him; she's central to the story.

As with his Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, Demme does a superior job of building and maintaining suspense, and the sheer intensity of the acting is central to this effect. Stepping into the Frank Sinatra role, Washington gives another great performance as an exhausted, paranoid, haggard man who can't get anyone to believe him. When he feels a lump in his shoulder, he barely pauses before he whips out a huge knife and starts digging away (he finds a microchip).

Streep has big shoes to fill, taking over Angela Lansbury's scene-stealing, Oscar-nominated role as Shaw's mother. Streep can be earthy and beautiful in films like The Bridges of Madison County and Adaptation, but she's also very good at this kind of pointed, vicious shrew whose eyes are almost shaped liked daggers. "Where are the men anymore?" she shrieks at her Capitol Hill colleagues. "My father didn't have to go around asking 'is this OK?' He just did what needed to be done."

Finally, Schreiber makes a vast improvement over the original film's Laurence Harvey. Harvey was a stiff actor who played a stiff character, but Schreiber is a loose, brilliant actor who takes on a stiff role and breaks it down from the inside. He makes Shaw far more interesting and three-dimensional.

Demme's love for actors extends all the way down to the tiniest parts. Familiar faces and wonderful character actors pop up, even for just a scene or two: Charles Napier, Roger Corman, Jeffrey Wright, Ted Levine, Jon Voight, Dean Stockwell, Robyn Hitchcock, etc.

Demme and the screenwriters offer a new variation on the ending, so that even if you remember the original, this one still has a few tricks up its sleeve. Yet Demme's direction isn't quite as assured as it once was on The Silence of the Lambs, in which every icy shot seemed part of a bigger plan. Here the pieces seem more tailored to their particular players and then jumbled together. Washington's tattered scenes mash together with Schreiber's calculated ones, and while the effect is off-putting, the seams still show.

While the film succeeds far better than Demme's last remake, The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate still doesn't provide a valid reason for existing in 2004. It's entertaining and provides work for a great many excellent actors, but it's nowhere near as impassioned as Demme's most recent film The Agronomist, and it's no match for the original.

DVD Details: Paramount's DVD comes with a commentary track by Jonathan Demme and writer Daniel Pyne, extended/deleted scenes, outtakes, two featurettes, Liev Schreiber's screen test and "Political Pundits with Director Commentary." Strangely, it's all less exciting than MGM's Special Edition DVD of the original, which came out earlier this year in conjunction with this film's theatrical release.

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