Though it is ill-conceived to remake a classic such as the 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury at her best, it is hard not to get excited about such a retelling when it stars Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight. This new Manchurian Candidate is also quite good at times, though cannot really compare in the scheme of things.
The new version starts off disturbingly bad, as director Jonathan Demme (best known for The Silence of the Lambs) jars the audience in the beginning with horrid music and cheesy opening credits. It gets better as time goes on, though Demme's cluttered approach to the story is questionable and at times visually unappealing. His portrayals of the dreams (of the truth) leave little mystery to those who are not already aware of the underlying plot of the story, and not until the end does everything really come together in an acceptable way. Most visually obtrusive are the television reports that Demme throws in rather frequently - none of them look very real and in fact at times look so unreal that it is hard to take them seriously. Could he not get a license from CNN or MSNBC?
Nonetheless, The Manchurian Candidate is aided by a good script and some good acting. Washington, who plays Sinatra's character, is quite good and easy to watch. He does not spellbind as he does in some of his films, but the more subdued approach is almost more preferred to his typical "dominate every scene" perspective. Of course, who can dominate the movie when you have so many other good actors involved? Streep plays the controlling mother of the Vice President-elect, who was played to perfection by Lansbury in the original. Streep isn't nearly as good as Lansbury was in any way or form, but she is still very powerful and very effective. The best performance comes from neither of these two Oscar winners, however, but from Schreiber, who plays the puppet that is neither good nor bad. This conflict of interest lends itself to a very interesting and thrilling performance, one where his character can do bad things without inherently being bad himself.
The movie does move along at a rapid pace, though with Demme's transitions the film does become a bit messy at times. A little more mystery and suspense would have nice, but at the same time Demme does make the right decision in allowing his actors to do much of the work for him - even though the film isn't shot beautifully, it is acted beautifully.
When all is said and done, this new Manchurian Candidate is a harmless remake of the original, an effective thriller that entertains and that is very appropriate given the upcoming election. The original is better and will always be better, but there is room for both.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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