Give Jonathan Demme credit. Few persons other than the filmmaker behind Stop Making Sense and The Silence of the Lambs would have the nerve to remake a classic thriller like The Manchuriam Candidate, John Frankenheimer's ace 1962 adaptation of Richard Condon's book. That said, it should be noted that he also remade the acclaimed suspense film Charade and coughed out The Truth About Charlie.
On its own, Demme's Candidate is a serviceable enough thriller. A dazzling roster of outstanding actors do solid work performing the overstuffed screenplay based on the 1962 script based on the original book. The cinematography and editing are impressive and the Rachel Portman score propels the film nicely.
The bottom line is this: If you haven't seen the original, my guess is that you'll find it better than most recent thrillers, but wonder what all the fuss is about. As for those who, like me, hold the original in high regard, you'll enjoy comparing and contrasting the two movies before deciding that the remake comes up decidedly short.
There were three things that kept me riveted to the original Manchurian Candidate: the film's unrelenting sense of wrongness, so strong you can almost taste it; Angela Lansbury's startling performance as the absolute worst mother ever, and the unbelievably creepy "tea party" scene where the captors of a group of thoroughly brainwashed U.S. soldiers put their puppets through the paces before an audience of political power brokers.
The updated story still resembles the original. It moves the opening of the tale to pre-Desert Storm Kuwait, with Captain Ben Marco (Denzel Washington, fine in the role once played by Frank Sinatra) and Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber, showing a bit more humanity than Laurence Harvey did in the original) leading a group of soldiers that are attacked and captured while on a mission to check Iraqi troop strength.
Within three days, all but two of the men are rescued, thanks to the heroic efforts of Shaw, who subsequently is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Cut to 13 years later, where Marco suffers from recurring nightmares indicating that things in Kuwait might not have gone as he and his fellow soldiers remember. Meanwhile, Shaw is running for vice-president, propelled by his mother Eleanor (Meryl Streep, adding a bit of silkiness to the part so brilliantly played by Angela Lansbury), a power playing Senator known for doing whatever it takes to further her agenda. Right now, she wants her son elected and, when Marco shows up to discuss his dreams with Shaw, she wants no part of him.
Three notable changes: First, in the original film, Shaw stood on the sidelines while Eleanor engineered the vice-presidential campaign of his step-father. Making Shaw himself the candidate plugs him further into the story. Good change! Second, where the "Manchurian" part of the title once referred to the communist Chinese operatives behind the whole brainwashing program, it now is the name of a massive corporation. Strained change. Finally, the extended "tea party" scene, where the Manchurians use the brainwashed soldiers to present their monstrous puppet play, is gone, replaced by flashback snippets of implants and acts of violence. Ask anyone who saw the original and they will affirm that the long "tea party" sequence was the most memorable scene in the movie. By far, cutting the scene is the worst decision made by the filmmakers.
There are other changes, but I can't discuss them without giving away the plot. I can tell you that the Demme and company add a twist that was not in the original. Whether they did this as a nod to fans of the 1962 version or just to put their own mark on the story is unclear. Regardless, the bonus twist is a complication that makes the latter part of the movie seem overstuffed and a bit muddled.
Sadly, remakes of movies sometimes replace the original in the minds of viewers, especially younger ones. If you enjoy this version of The Manchurian Candidate, check out the original for even more creepy fun. And if you reacted poorly to this one, well, you certainly know what to do.