Jonathan Demme is definitely back. After his two hits in the early 90s, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, he's had a string of bombs, including the adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved and last year's The Truth About Charlie. But he's at the top of his game with his remake of the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate. This is one highly entertaining movie, if you're a fan of the original or even if you've never seen it.
Remakes are a dime a dozen in Hollywood these days, but we rarely see classics like The Manchurian Candidate remade. We usually see remakes of cult classics (See: The Ladykillers) or old-school action vehicles (See: The Italian Job) or even 70s TV show transfers (See: Starsky and Hutch). But if any classic deserved to be remade, it's The Manchurian Candidate. The basic elements of paranoia in the original can definitely shift to today's movie-going crowd and, as we know from M. Night Shyamalan's success, that movie audiences love the "big twist" which the original definitely had. With those elements in place, all they needed was a stellar cast and current setting and tone for the script, which was all delivered nicely.
The movie starts out in Iraq, with a bunch of Army soldiers playing poker, Bennet Marco (Washington) figuring out a safe path to take on a recoinnasaince mission and Raymond Shaw (Schrieber) sitting out by himself in the desert. They leave on their mission and are met by resistance and minor chaos ensues. Cut to the present, where Marco has horrific nightmares, stocking up on No-Doz to avoid them, and trying to figure out what happened in the desert, because he just knows what happened isn't what he remembered happening and it all revolves around now-Senator Raymond Shaw (Schrieber).
There were only a few minor problems with the movie. One, is that I thought, from the opening scenes with a few Army squads playing poker, that they would keep the same "trigger", if you will, from the first movie. I thought Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne (The Sum of All Fears) and Dean Georgaris (Paycheck) were setting it up nicely for this part, but they ended up using something totally different. The new "trigger" did work, I guess, but there were so many ways you could've played the original "trigger" that I'm surprised they didn't use it. My other problem was with how they used Meryl Streep's character. She does a pretty good job with the character she's given, Shaw's conniving Senator-mother Elanor. She doesn't hold a candle to Angela Lansbury in the original, though, and a lot of that had to do with the major differences in the character. Lansbury was conniving as well, but more cold and calculating, and Streep just came off as being an annoying, controlling woman that you'd do anything to avoid. Streep just seemed too over-the-top, for me. But, a remake or a sequel should be able to stand on its own, without the original movie, and this movie, as a whole, definitely does. If you've never seen the original, you might not have a problem with these things, but it just bugged me a little bit.
This movie is cast perfectly, though. Denzel Washington gives a remarkable performances as Marco, a role the late great Frank Sinatra played in the original. There is a Sinatra connection in the remake as well, with his daughter, Tina, producing, fulfilling a wish of her father to remake this flick. Anyway, Washington is just smashing as the paranoid Marco, displaying some amazing range in a type of character we really haven't seen from him. This is definitely an Oscar-worthy performance, but while I wouldn't be terribly surprised if he didn't get an Oscar nod for this role, I would be surprised if his co-star, Liev Schrieber didn't get a nod for his amazing turn as Raymond Shaw. Everything about him, his demeanor, look and even his voice is just perfect for the role previously played by Laurence Harvey. I would think he's a sure lock for a Supporting Actor nomination, but stranger things have happened. Still, Schrieber gives a performance of a lifetime here. The only other slightly significant characters here are Jon Voight's Senator Thomas Jordan and Kimberly Elise's Rosie. They did a neat hybrid thing with Rosie, putting a neat twist on the role previously played by Psycho's Janet Leigh, but her performance wasn't that solid. Voight has had better performances as well, but he really doesn't have a whole lot of screen time here.
Screenwriters Pyne and Georgaris do a great job at updating this thriller to modern day politics and armed forces themes. There is also some great dialogue, some nice humor breaks from the drama and a phenomenal ending that may even be better than the original. One of the TV ads has a quote from some critic that said something to the effect that you won't be able to breathe in the last 30 minutes. It wasn't an exagerration, folks. The ending puts definition into the word "breathtaking." All in all, it was a great script from Pyne and Georgaris.
Director Jonathan Demme does a fabulous job at the helm, although the constant fake-CNN news bits got a tad annoying. Still, his work in the directors chair is his best since that flick about the killing/Chianti guy...you know the one. Anyway now that he has his game back, it will be interesting to see what he tackles next, but after this flick, I'm definitely looking forward to whatever he takes on next.
The Manchurian Candidate is a flick about fear and control. It's powerful in a way that few films are and it is not to be missed. Everything IS under control...in more ways than one in this nearly-perfect film.