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A Gulf War veteran uncovers a political plot involving a former member of his platoon. Remake of John Frankenheimer's classic thriller starring Denzel Washington, Liev Shreiber and Meryl Streep and directed by Jonathan Demme
After winning Oscars for The Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme would seem an unlikely candidate to jump aboard the Hollywood remake bandwagon. Demme it was, however, who damaged his reputation with a reimagining of Charade that was so limp he changed to the title to The Truth About Charlie. With one strike against his name, people held their breath when the director announced that his next film would be a retread of the great conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate.
Those expecting another disaster will be relieved to hear that not only does Demme's film refrain from embarrassing John Frankenheimer's movie, but it also succeeds where other modern thrillers have failed.
Working with Demme for the first time since Philadelphia, Denzel Washington plays Bennett Marco, a veteran of the first Gulf War whose immaculate exterior masks inner chaos. Not that Bennett's the only troubled member of his platoon - Raymond Shaw (Schreiber) has returned to the US a hero even though he has no recollection of the act of bravery for which he received the Medal Of Honor. As Shaw's ambitious mother Eleanor (Streep) nudges him towards political office, Marco starts to investigate what happened to him and his men in Kuwait and uncovers a paranoid world of renegade scientists, brain implants and political assassination.
Every bit as fantastical as Frankenheimer's film (and the Richard Condon novel that inspired it), The Manchurian Candidate's inherent ridiculousness is kept in check by sharp direction and excellent performances. While it may have been a while since Demme made a great film, the man who directed The Silence Of The Lambs knows a thing or two about thrills and chills. As for his actors, the intense Liev Schreiber was born to play the immensely warped Shaw and while he only really replicates the epic tragedy of Laurence Harvey's performance in the final scenes, he interprets the character in a unique and fascinating fashion. Washington's also very good as Marco, himself a damaged soul whose grip on reality frays with each new revelation.
With Jon Voight and Simon McBurney adding clout and creepiness respectively to the proceedings, it's a pity that Meryl Streep should undercut the drama by over-playing her political grande dame - it's one thing to have fun with a part, but Streep almost seems to be sneering at the picture. The other big problem with the film is Demme's decision to use his preposterous plot to commentate on the "War on Terror", a move that's as tasteless as it is miscalculated.
Never quite as driven as the Frankenheimer film, Demme's picture is also the weaker for ditching Condon's juicy dialogue. But if it isn't the original's equal, The Manchurian Candidate conjures up an air of menace sufficient to make most modern thrillers look like romantic comedies. And for embracing oddness at a time when conformity is king in Hollywood, it seems there's still something refreshingly wild about Jonathan Demme.
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