U.S. Release Date: July 30, 2004
Distributor: Paramount
Director: Jonathan Demme
Producer: Scott Aversano (executive), Scott Rudin
Composer: Rachel Portman
Cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Mackie, Vera Farmiga
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (for violence and some language)

Mommie Smearest
by Scott Holleran

Absent a compelling reason to exist, Jonathan Demme's remake of John Frankenheimer's 1962 political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, is off mark. Laden with a diluted plot, Paramount's conspiracy retread is driven by corporate power, not ideology, and the change delivers a fatal blow.

Hollywood has gone berserk copying good (and bad) original movies and poor Mr. Demme (Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs) is the latest director to fall prey to secondhand pictures—in this case, third-hand, since the Frankenheimer flick was based on Richard Condon's novel. Mr. Demme does what he can, adding a few twists, modernizing female characters, maintaining some measure of suspense and, in his best stroke, depicting the media as fundamentally anti-conceptual.

For those who missed the superior original, which is a warning against both communism and traditionalism, with a swipe at the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the basic plot is the same. A military unit is brainwashed to glorify a soldier (Liev Schreiber), who emerges as a national hero, in a conspiracy to take over the United States. One man gets wind of the plan (Denzel Washington), and the puzzle is supposed to be completed as the scheme is executed.

That's where Manchurian's pieces do not fit. Presenting ear-splitting blasts of purposeless sound, jerky images and inaudible dialog, Mr. Demme seems restless interpreting a lethargic script by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris. He lets Manchurian sag in the middle, distracting the audience with Meryl Streep's histrionics, and what remains is the stain of Mr. Pyne's previous work, The Sum of All Fears: an ominous threat reduced to a politically correct villain.

Replacing the original's diabolical foreign enemy with businessmen and scientists, whose research on computer implants could radically improve human life, any sense of grave and imminent danger is quelled. Dean Stockwell puffing on a cigar and diminutive Simon McBurney's scientist looking like Roddy McDowall are as intimidating as a couple of used car salesmen. Miss Streep merely does an impression of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.

Implanting computer chips in the brain is more promising than frightening, as any pet owner knows, especially compared to the memorable image of the original's Soviet, Chinese and North Korean communist torture chamber. Manchurian's inference that the corporation is a menace is vague and ironic since the most commonly associated corporate vice—conformity—is causing Hollywood's remake frenzy.

Though it picks up its sluggish pace, The Manchurian Candidate never really matters—its conspiracy, if enacted, is impossible to induce fear in all but the most diehard Bolshevik. America controlled by communists—America controlled by jihadis—America controlled by religious fascists—now that's a warning worth watching. This movie's worst case scenario—America controlled by businessmen and scientists—is a smear against both, leaving The Manchurian Candidate as a copy of a cautionary tale that lacks the dangerous premise against which one might caution.

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