The Manchurian Candidate review by Mike Long

When it comes to the genre of political thrillers, I typically have no interest. I find real-life politics scary enough, thank you very much, so I don't want to watch any movies that will only exacerbate those feelings. However, I was curious about Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate, based on the cast involved with the project and the pedigree of the 1962 original film. What I found was a well-crafted, but flawed film, which eerily reflects today's political landscape...which did nothing for my anxiety.

The Manchurian Candidate opens in Kuwait in 1991 during Desert Storm. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is leading his platoon through the country, when they are ambushed. They are saved by the swift action of Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). The story then leaps ahead to the present. Major Marco is still in the military, but suffers from bizarre nightmares. Shaw is now a senator, and thanks to the political influence of his mother, Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), he has just gotten on the ticket to run for vice-president. When Marco is confronted by another member of that doomed platoon from Kuwait (Jeffrey Wright in a nice cameo), his dreams become more vivid and begins to suspect that he and his men were brainwashed into believing that Shaw was/is a war hero. Marco confronts Shaw but soon learns that it's now very challenging to get close to this powerful man. As Marco digs deeper into the mystery, he begins to suspect that Eleanor Shaw and her backers from the Manchurian Global financial group are attempting to place a fully programmable man in the White House.

Given the obstacles involved in making this movie, director Jonathan Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have done an admirable job. I've never seen the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, but I've certainly read about it and I know the story. Therefore, going into the remake, I knew some of what was going to happen, but the story contains enough twists to keep the viewer interested. Also, in some ways, the movie mirrors the political landscape of 2004. Demme and co. are able to place the film squarely in our world without making the characters resemble any real-life people.

Along with making the story new and fresh, this new version of The Manchurian Candidate needed to contain a cast which strive to match the original's use of Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, and Janet Leigh. The use of Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber may not make anyone forget about those legends from the original, but they certainly get the job done. It's great to see Washington playing a character who is so full of self-doubt. Ben Marco is a haunted man and Washington does a fine job of portraying the stress that this man is going through. Streep excels as the ultimate domineering mother who is charming to most, but a monster to her son. Schreiber gives an understated role as a man who knows that he wants to be a politician, but isn't sure is he wants to be his mother's puppet. Also, as with The Silence of the Lambs, Demme has packed the film with many great cameos.

Demme's The Manchurian Candidate has a great cast and puts a new spin on the classic story, but the film isn't perfect. During the first two acts of the movie, Demme is able to create an nice amount of tension, mostly done through his create visuals and use of extreme close-ups. However, the last 1/3 of the movie is very predictable, and thus the story loses much of its sting. While I must admit that I didn't see the final punch coming, most of the actions of the main characters are telegraphed far in advance. This weak last act puts a stain on an otherwise fine film. I can't say if the new The Manchurian Candidate is better than the original, but I can tell you that it's a good political thriller, and that's a compliment which I rarely bestow.

The Manchurian Candidate is elected to DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film comes to DVD in two versions, one widescreen and the other full-frame. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for widescreen TVs. The picture looks very good, as it is very sharp and clear. Demme and his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto have shot the film in a very naturalistic manner (save for the nightmares), and the colors all look very good. The image shows no defects from the source material and there is little evidence of problems from edge enhancement or artifacting. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The track has no hissing or distortion. The track does a fine job of balancing standard dialogue scenes, with the sound coming from the center channel, with the nightmare scenes, in which the audio comes at you from every speaker, completely filling the room.

The Manchurian Candidate DVD contains many nice extras. We start with an audio commentary from director Jonathan Demme and co-writer Daniel Pyne. This pair speaks constantly throughout the film and do a fine job of discussing the story and the actors. They touch on the changes from the original novel and film while discussing the themes of the film. There isn't a great deal of technical information here, but the talk is enlightening nonetheless. Next up is a 14-minute making of featurette entitled "The Enemy Within: Inside The Manchurian Candidate". Demme and Pyne do a lot of the talking here, as they, and the cast, discuss the making of the film, from the acquisition of the film rights to changing the focus of the story. They also discuss actual brain manipulation techniques. The actors comment on Demme and the look of film. This segment contains some nice behind-the-scenes footage. "The Cast of The Manchurian Candidate" (12 minutes) examines Washington, Streep, and Schreiber and their characters. The DVD contains 5 "Deleted/Extended Scenes" which have optional commentary from Demme and Pyne. There is nothing new here, but some of the scenes are interesting. There are two "Outtakes", which are really extended versions of mock interviews which appear in the film, as we have Eleanor interviewed by Stacy Newsome-Santiago and Eleanor interviewed by Al Franken. These two interviews have optional commentary as well. We also find optional commentary on "Political Pundits" (10 minutes), a series of three vignettes with figures discussing politics. They are; Roy Blount Jr. & Beau Sia; Fab 5 Freddy & Ann Deavere Smith; and Reno & Sideny Lumet. The extras are rounded out by Schreiber's screen-test with Streep (3 minutes.)

6 out of 10 Jackasses

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