Why, you might well ask, would anyone want to redo John Frankenheimer's great 1962 satirical thriller "The Manchurian Candidate"? Everyone knows it's folly to remake a classic. Well, so much for what everyone knows. Jonathan Demme's new "Manchurian Candidate" is a gourmet-popcorn movie--a hugely entertaining thriller shot through with dark shards of agony and paranoia. It takes nothing away from the original while delivering pleasures all its own.
The setting has shifted to the present; the war that haunts our troubled hero, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), is not Korea but the gulf war, where he and his men were ambushed in a nighttime raid in Kuwait. The survivors were saved by the heroics of Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who has since advanced--with the help of his domineering, powerful senator mother, Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep)--to become a vice presidential candidate. But the official story doesn't jibe with Marco's recurring nightmares of what happened to his patrol--nightmares shared by other surviving soldiers. Is he losing his mind? Has someone toyed with his mind? Obsessed with finding the truth, he stalks the candidate, and his quest leads him--and the audience--into a wild conspiratorial maze booby-trapped with danger.
The shock of the new can strike only once: Demme's version can't approximate the originality of Frankenheimer and George Axelrod's version of Richard Condon's novel. But Demme and his screenwriters, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, are after different game. They've spun the plot in new directions, injecting this byzantine tale with fresh resonance. It's not just because of the Mideast connection that "Manchurian Candidate" now seems a companion piece to "Fahrenheit 9/11." Demme discards the original's absurdist political satire and its roller-coaster tonal shifts. This "Manchurian's" spirit harks back less to Frankenheimer than to such dark ' 70s conspiracy movies as "The Parallax View" and "3 Days of the Condor."
The paranoid Marco, the affectless, mother-hating Raymond and the power-crazed Eleanor are meaty parts all, and these actors feast themselves. Washington, digging deep into his simmering rage, gives us a man whose paranoia and confusion have left him stunned and stunted. There's no movie-star vanity in this performance. His Marco is more than a little scary: you can see why people think he's a nut case. Schreiber's role (the Laurence Harvey part) is in some ways the toughest: Raymond is a stiff, charmless man so out of touch with his feelings he seems almost robotic. He's also a man capable of performing horrific acts, and the beauty of Schreiber's performance is that he's able to make us feel for him, something Harvey, with his metallic chill, couldn't do. Streep, smartly, doesn't try to emulate Angela Lansbury's steely, imperious ferocity. Her powerhouse performance loosens Eleanor's buttons: this matriarch is more volatile, humorous, a woman almost giddy with power.
There are a few things that don't work--the exposition-heavy scenes with Bruno Ganz's scientist can't escape a certain B-movie mumbo jumbo, the coda falls a bit flat, and something is sacrificed by taking this story out of its cold-war context: the villainous scheme is both vaguer and more mundane. But to explain more would be to spoil the dark fun of this convoluted thriller. Now we have two delicious "Manchurian Candidates." Think of it not as a competition, but a bonus.