Monday, December 27, 2004

Movie Review: "The Manchurian Candidate"

Movie Review: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Warning: This review contains spoilers!

One of the nice things about traveling so much is that I often have a chance to see a movie that I missed in the theaters back home. Tonight, in Sofia, was such a night. I saw the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. I wanted to see this movie since the original was so good. That should have been my first clue to avoid it. In the last 20 years, when has Hollywood remade a classic and done it justice? (Think Gus Van Sant's Psycho or Jodie Foster's Anna and the King.)

I have a bit of history with Candidate '04. It has been playing on United Airlines (which along with Sheraton is one of my homes away from home) for several months, but every time it looked like I was going to see it, something would happen to make me miss it. The last time was coming home from Melbourne in August. As I was settling in in first class, I looked at the in-flight entertainment magazine and was pleased to see that Candidate '04 was playing. After take-off, the purser announced the start of the in-flight entertainment program. As he announced the movies that were being shown, he mentioned that there would be a slight change. Instead of Candidate '04 this flight would be showing the execrable Around The World In Eighty Days with Jackie Chan (another horror show). Foiled again. Curse you, Red Baron!

So, how was it? In a word, disappointing. Despite a talented cast featuring Denzel Washington (Philadelphia, Training Day), Liev Schreiber (The Sum Of All Fears, RKO 281), and Meryl Streep (Sophie's Choice, Kramer vs. Kramer) and Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), the movie doesn't stand up to the original.

Both movies reflect the political climates of their times. The 1962 original, directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May), is set in the 1950s after the Korean War during the height of the "red scare" and McCarthyism. It draws heavily on the theme of anti-Communist paranoia. Likewise, the 2004 version uses the current War on Terror as its political backdrop. An astute choice by Demme, although a political thriller set in the present day could hardly ignore it.

In the original, Frank Sinatra (From Here to Eternity, The Man with the Golden Arm) plays Cpt. Bennett Marco. (I'm a little hazy on the details of the original, so forgive me if I get some of this wrong.) Marco suspects that he and his Korean War Army unit have been brainwashed by the Chinese (hence the title reference to Manchuria). He begins to suspect that his friend, Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey (Butterfield 8, The Alamo), in probably the performance of his career, has been programmed to carry out a political assassination.

Of course, it is up to Marco to stop Shaw by deprogramming his friend (in the memorable red queen scene). Pitted against Marco is Mrs. Iselin, Raymond's mother. In the original, Shaw's manipulating, ubёr-ambitious mother is played by Angela Lansbury (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Mirror Crack'd) in a tour-de-force, clearly the movie's best performance. In fact, Lansbury was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (losing to The Miracle Worker's Patty Duke).

In the 2004 version, Denzel Washington plays Ben Marco and Liev Schreiber plays Raymond Shaw. In the movie's opening scene, we see Marco, Shaw and their squad in Kuwait in 1991. Their squad is assigned a reconnaissance mission, but are ambushed on their return to base. As Marco is engaging the enemy with his HMMWV's (a.k.a. Hum-vee) M-60, he is knocked unconscious. Shaw takes over, saves the day and is awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits.

Cut to the present day. In the near future depicted in Candidate '04, America is still involved in the War on Terror with no end in sight. Throughout the film, we hear and see news reports of the progress, or lack thereof, in this drawn out conflict (think quagmire, although the word is never used). We hear about U.S. getting involved in the "Indonesian Incursion". Later we hear about a U.S. air strike against chemical weapons facilities in the West African nation of Guinea. This last caused me to sputter in disbelief.

We learn that Shaw, now a congressman from New York, has been nominated as his party's vice presidential candidate. (In one of the movie's few original twists, we never learn which party. Although perhaps this was the case in the original. I can't recall. If so, then disregard my previous comment.) Next we catch up with Marco as he is giving a speech to a group of Boy Scouts. After the speech, he is approached by a soldier from his squad who tips him off that everything that happened that night may not have been as it seemed. Marco professes ignorance, but in the next scene we learn that he has his own doubts about the events of that fateful night.

As the plot unfolds, we learn that Marco and his unit were in fact the victims of high-tech brainwashing by an unscrupulous South African scientist. (White South Africans, with their apartheid past, being one of Hollywood's acceptable "bad guy" groups, along with skinheads, Russian ultranationalists, Colombian drug lords and - up until 9/11 at least - Arab terrorists. Now that Islam has been proclaimed a "religion of peace" - oxymoron that - this will undoubtedly change.) This scientist is doing the dirty work of "private equity giant" Manchurian Global (a bit of a stretch to justify the movie's title - I guess calling the film The Halliburton Candidate would have been too Michael Moore-ish). Manchurian Global is a corporation whose business is the training of private armies, the winning of no-compete government contracts (in a thinly-disguised dig at Halliburton) and controversial genetic research.

Now, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Hollywood feels obligated to make some changes when doing a remake, perhaps to differentiate it from the original . (Although the results when the filmmaker remains true to the original can still be disastrous, e.g. Van Sant's Psycho.) Candidate '04 is no exception.

In the original, Shaw isn't the candidate. Rather it is his stepfather who is the candidate, thanks to Lansbury's manipulations. Shaw is programmed to assassinate the president-elect thereby elevating his step-father to the presidency where presumably he will be the puppet of Shaw's mother and the Communist Chinese. In this version, though, it is Shaw who is the candidate and Marco who is programmed to assassinate the president-elect making Shaw the new president (bought and paid for by Manchurian Global).

Perhaps if I hadn't seen the original I might have enjoyed this movie more. Most of the cast gave solid performances. Washington as Marco easily equals the acting done by Sinatra (not that hard to do since Ole Blue Eyes wasn't that great an actor). Schreiber gave what I thought was the film's strongest performance as Raymond Shaw. (The same would have been true of Laurence Harvey's portrayal of Raymond Shaw in the original had Angela Lansbury not decided to set fire to the screen.) Schreiber made me feel Raymond's anguish over wanting to be a good son, all the while seeing and knowing what a manipulative monster he has for a mother. I really felt Raymond's fatalistic acceptance of his inability to stand up to Eleanor. Perhaps I'm biased since I really enjoy Schreiber's work (especially RKO281 - which if you haven't seen, you should).

Prior to seeing Candidate '04 I had read a review praising Streep's performance. I didn't see it. For starters, she doesn't appear in enough of the film to really be seen as the standout. Secondly, in this version, Eleanor Shaw is a senator herself, and not the behind-the-scenes kingmaker of the original. Lastly, the filmmakers gave a disturbing incestuous twist to the mother-son relationship. This last touch was superfluous and completely creepy. Surely this last was not Streep's fault. However it made me dislike the character all the more while at the same time making me lose any of the begrudging respect I felt towards Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin. In the original, you certainly don't like Raymond's mother but you are forced to respect her political skills - especially given that she is forced to play a man's game with the handicap of remaining behind the scenes. (And, again, I could be displaying my bias since I am decidedly not a Meryl Streep fan.)

There were several other interesting casting choices. The one I enjoyed most was Robyn Hitchcock as the shadowy private contractor Laurence Tokar. (Tokar is the one who delivers Marco and his unit to the brainwashers of Manchurian Global.) Just who is Robyn Hitchcock, you ask? Well, back in the '80s he and his band, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, were part of the British "alternative rock" scene. (Think MTV's 120 Minutes.)

Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home) takes on one of the larger supporting roles as a senator whose spot as the vice presidential candidate on his party's ticket is usurped by Shaw. Another familiar face was Dean Stockwell (Kim, Blue Velvet, Dune), disappointingly underutilized here as one of the corporate directors of Manchurian Global. Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs, Heat), and Miguel Ferrer (Robocop, Traffic) also appear as Marco's Army superiors. Both are more than capable actors, and like Stockwell, are underutilized here. I also recognized Bruno Ganz playing a scientist friend of Marco's who helps him to unravel part of the mystery. Ganz is a well-known German actor, probably best known for Wim Wenders' masterpiece Wings of Desire.

Lastly, Al Franken was fairly prominently featured as a TV political commentator. To be blunt, I hate Al Franken. I never thought he was funny when he was on Saturday Night Live, and I positively loathe him now that he has taken on the role of gadfly of the political Left. I guess he had to find another line of work since he is so unfunny. I'm sure my Bulgarian theater-mates were puzzled as to why this gringo in their midst kept giving the finger to the screen at odd intervals. I couldn't help it. It's almost a reflex at this point.

My advice? Rent the original.

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