Academy Award® winners Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, along with Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Liev Schreiber, mesmerize a whole new generation of audiences in Academy Award® winner Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate. As the entire nation watches the presidential campaign hurtle towards Election Day, one soldier races to uncover the conspiracy behind it – a conspiracy that seeks to destroy democracy itself.
eyelights: Liev Schreiber. its final twist.
eyesores: Meryl Streep. its scientific implausibility. its plot flaws.
“This isn’t an election, this is a coup.”
For years a friend of mine has been telling me that I should watch the 2004 remake of ‘The Manchurian Candidate‘. Having seen the wonderfully conspiracy-minded original, I certainly didn’t feel the need to see a modern update – especially not with Denzel Washington, who is a terrific actor frequently stuck in lackluster films.
But my buddy insisted that it was worth seeing, if only because the filmmakers shifted the focus from foreign governments to corporations, telling me that the villain of the piece was Manchurian Global – hence the film’s title. I was unconvinced but, after a few years, I decided that, having found it for dirt cheap, I’d try it.
Jonathan Demme’s picture is a substantially different film than John Frankenheimer’s. Whereas the original felt a bit like a paranoid fantasy (no doubt thanks to the opening brainwashing sequence), this one has the sensibilities of a modern conspiracy thriller: the enemy is entirely within, not without; democracy is rotting from the inside.
The overarching plot remains the same, of course: a U.S. Army unit is ambushed and kidnapped while on a mission and brainwashed by a mysterious enemy. Over a decade later, its commanding officer, Major Marco, begins to unravel the threads of this conspiracy, which revolves around former Sergeant Shaw, and the current election.
I tried to watch this update from two perspectives: 1) as someone unfamiliar with the original, and 2) also as someone who already knows its twists. I figured that, if the filmmakers wanted it to be successful, they needed it to remain relatively true to the original, all the while making it fresh enough that it doesn’t become redundant.
1) For someone who has never been exposed to the 1962 version, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ may initially be intriguing: we know that Marco and his team have been ambushed, we know that Marco was knocked out, but we don’t know how they got out of there – just that Shaw saved the day and became a war hero.
But then it makes it abundantly clear that Shaw is in Manchurian Global’s pocket, if only because of their name (at least the original wasn’t as obvious!). We just don’t know how it will play out. So we merely end up waiting to understand how they control him, knowing that it’s a political coup well before Marco figures it out.
Frankly, the only real twist here is Shaw’s mother’s role in these events.
2) For those of us who already know what to expect, this ‘Manchurian Candidate’ is initially intriguing because we soon come to realize that Shaw is not merely used as an assassin here – he’s the actual candidate. This changes things up to some degree, because he’s a willing player, not an angst-ridden, tortured soul.
It also changes his dynamic with his mother, because he’s a force all on his own – whereas in the original she was the powerbroker, managing her spouse’s political career. The paranoid one here is Marco, who is increasingly erratic as he struggles to put the pieces together – he comes off as your stereotypical conspiracy theorist.
Frankly, the only real twist here is Marco’s ultimate role in these events.
And even that‘s spoiled by Ms. Shaw’s James Bond villain-like admission to her son towards the end, a lazy piece of exposition that was fed to us by the writers because they were unable to establish it in any other possible way. Though that might have worked in a day when cinema and theatre were reflections, it doesn’t now.
It doesn’t help that Meryl Streep totally overplays it – and not just this scene, but the whole damned thing. I don’t know what happened here, because she’s usually a master at her craft, but she’s pretty much a caricature. There’s this one scene in which she gave a speech to the party leaders that was so overblown it was a joke.
Meanwhile, Liev Schreiber was absolutely genius as Shaw, distant, disconnected one moment and then genial another. You totally believed both sides of his personality – though you have to assume that his more approachable side came as a result of his brainwashing, since he was irreparably antisocial and unlikable beforehand.
Denzel Washington is also quite good as Marco; his performance suits the demands of the role. The problem is the character itself, who begins as a stoic, reasonable individual, and rapidly begins to behave like what’s clinically called a “fruitcake”. Somehow it doesn’t feel true; people like him usually devolve over time not overnight.
Anyway, no performance can overcome weakness in the writing, leaving the film full of plot gaps and unanswered questions:
- Um… so Shaw is triggered by hearing his name? Really? That’s it? Well, we later find out that it’s a very specific sequence of repetitions of his name that does the trick. But, honestly, it’s simplistic and we are left quizzical for half the movie, making that bit seem far-fetched.
- So the villains hid an operating room in a secret opening inside Shaw’s hotel room? A room that’s monitored by heavy security? How did they ever manage that?
- And how could they possibly drill a hole in his head and not leave any clear-cut (!) traces or leave him vulnerable to the elements or to accidents? Ridiculous!
- Like in the original, Marco meets Rosie on the train – except she’s way too friendly and accommodating of his weirdness. So… how could anyone not see through her?
- It’s sometimes hard to know what’s real and what’s not, what with Marco seeing people from his nightmares in mirrors, behind him, …etc. That’s never explained. It feels like a cheap scare, but you don’t know for sure if these are visions or not until later – in fact, in some instance the scenes are edited in such a way that it suggest it’s real.
- Marco finds a scar on his shoulder that he’s never noticed before. As if… after ten years? Anyway, he digs it up with a knife and finds a bug – which he then proceeds to accidentally drop in the sink. How convenient! And he doesn’t even think of just unscrewing the plumbing to get the bug. Double-duh! By this point, he’s so obsessed that he just dug a knife into his shoulder – so that same obsession would naturally have found him taking the plumbing apart. Doh.
- Marco goes to NY to talk to Shaw. He looks way too unhinged by this point, seems crazy, but he’s allowed in by Shaw. That’s already pretty unlikely, but then he assaults Marco, tears off his shirt, and chews open the scar on his own shoulder to bite out the bug. Seriously! This is so preposterous that it’s laugh-out-loud funny!
- Oh, and the bug that Marco bit out? After getting arrested for assault, he kept it in his mouth the whole time he’s interrogated! No joke! F-ing hell…
- Marco eventually figures out he’s being spied upon by Rosie – he even finds hidden cameras in the apartment. So he takes her purse and rummages through it while she sleeps. In it he finds tapes of recordings that she’s made about him. Um… because she wasn’t smart enough to hide them properly – she kept them in her purse! Doh!
- Marco becomes erratic and visits Senator Jordan who is naturally skeptical when he sees his folder stuffed with scraggly notes. But Marco could easily have convinced him by playing Rosie’s tapes for him as proof. So… uh… why didn’t he?
- Why wasn’t Rosie looking for Marco since he has her tapes and, thus, she knows that he knows? Instead, she just stayed put in the apartment when she should at the very least have gotten the !@#$ out of there.
- Senator Jordan confronts Shaw and his mom, giving them an ultimatum. Um… that seems like a silly thing to do if he hasn’t yet fact-checked anything that Marco told him. Talk about potential career suicide!
- Ms. Shaw brainwashes her son to go kill the Senator. With all the power she had, and all her contacts, didn’t she have any other recourse than jeopardizing her son’s impending political victory?
- Shaw goes out to assassinate Jordan in broad daylight, in the middle of a lake. Other than Jordan’s daughter, whom he also kills, doesn’t anyone see or hear this? And why did the Shaws wait until daytime to do this? Why not do it the night before, after Jordan gave them his ultimatum? Doh.
- Ultimately, the whole conspiracy explodes in Manchurian Global’s face. Naturally. Gotta give the audience the satisfaction of “justice/revenge”. So we get to see all the CEOs distraught, with some of the even crying. Pffft! Ridiculous!
To think that the draft for this script netted screenwriter Daniel Pyne a million dollars!
The damn movie tries too hard to impress: Even the soundtrack overwhelms the picture in parts – especially during the opening credits, where snippets of songs start and stop abruptly, as though to pad the soundtrack. Or during the assassination scene, overlapping everything even though the song should only be playing in the hall.
Chill the !@#$ out, movie!
Don’t get me wrong: ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a mediocre one – especially when one considers the quality of the source material, its director and the cast; you’d naturally imagine a much better outcome. Instead, it stumbles consistently throughout, trying so hard to seem complex so that it can impress its audience.
And yet simplicity would have been best.
Date of viewing: Nov 6, 2016