Friday 1 January 2016

Movie Review: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

A remake of the 1962 classic, the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate updates the story and adds glossy treatment and star power, but loses some soul and grit in the process.

During the 1991 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, a small US army reconnaissance unit under the command of Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) engages the enemy in a fierce fire fight. Marco is knocked out, and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) takes charge. Although two soldiers are consequently killed and the unit is lost in the desert for three days, after the ordeal Shaw is awarded the Medal Of Honor for his bravery and leadership in battle, based on the testimony of Marco and all the surviving men.

Years later, the US is involved on multiple fronts in the war against terrorism. Shaw is a respected Congressman but very much under the influence of his domineering mother Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep). He is also in the running to be named as the Vice Presidential candidate on his party's ticket for the upcoming election. Meanwhile, Marco is struggling with vivid dreams that suggest the story of the Kuwait firefight is more manufactured than real, and that all the unit members may have been subjected to mind control techniques. Risking his reputation and his life, Marco digs into the story and uncovers the involvement of Manchurian Global, a private equity conglomerate heavily invested in arms deals, funding politicians and dangerous science. Marco reaches out to Shaw, but uncovering truth from fiction and the real motives at play will not be easy.

Directed by Jonathan Demme and with an all-star cast, this remake is not as needless as most. The story is updated to the present day, with the Gulf War and the war on terrorism replacing the Korean War and the war on communism respectively. Wisely not competing with the grim aesthetic of the original, Demme applies a thorough shine to this version, with electoral machines in full swing, corporate chicanery operating behind the scenes and the media cycle reporting on every detail.

The Manchurian Candidate offers a pleasing mix of conspiracy, back-room politics, a personal quest for the truth, frazzled flashbacks, wicked science, police work and a rush against time to a satisfying climax. Demme keeps the pace moving, and the 130 minutes zoom by fairly effortlessly. The film works hard to establish a fledgling bond between the high-flying Raymond Shaw and his forgotten former commander Bennett Marco, and the investment pays off as the resolution unfolds.

But the script can't shake a couple of significant problems. In modern day politics organizations like Manchurian Global easily buy and sell high ranking politicians with good old fashioned graft. Resorting to an elaborate and dangerous plot to brainwash soldiers in the middle of the desert to serve a political purpose seems disingenuous in the extreme. Another gaping logic hole opens up when Raymond Shaw, Vice Presidential candidate, is activated to personally do the dirty work once the conspiracy is threatened, another highly implausible and self-defeating tactic from evil plotters with supposedly every angle covered.

The performances from a host of familiar faces are adequate. Denzel Washington comfortably occupies the space of the increasingly troubled veteran soldier on a quest to uncover an alternative truth when his version of reality stops being plausible. Schreiber maintains a suitable facade of tortured coldness, while Streep is, for once, relatively perfunctory. Kimberly Elise makes a good impression in the second half of the film as Eugenie Rose, Marco's potential love interest and possibly hiding her own secrets.

Jon Voight has a few scenes as Shaw's political rival, and Vera Farmiga gets even fewer minutes in an underdeveloped sub-story as Voight's daughter and Shaw's lost love interest. Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Mackie, Dean Stockwell and Charles Napier show up in brief roles.

The Manchurian Candidate 2004 edition is a reasonable effort, a classic story modernized but not fully reinvented.

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