Watching Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Something Wild) rework a genuine American classic would have been less painful if I had been like the film’s star, Denzel Washington, and had never seen the original. Instead, I was unfortunately cursed with knowledge about the first that wholly ruined this turn at “updating” the vastly superior John Frankenheimer-directed 1962 gem. If Demme thought he could substitute a more “modern” adversary and all would work out, he was sorely mistaken, because this is one fine mess of a movie. Absolutely nothing works in this version to solicit the kind of tightly wound suspense and serious implications that the original inspired. Is it unfair to compare this film to the original? For those who are well-acquainted with the original film, comparisons are about the only intellectual stimulation you’ll derive from this hopelessly muddled, poorly acted, absolute waste of time.
A brief primer: In the original, Frank Sinatra (in probably the best screen performance of his career) portrays Capt. Bennett Marco, a man who served in the Korean conflict. Marco and Sgt. Raymond Shaw, perfectly conjured by Laurence Harvey, spend a mysterious year in captivity, along with other members of their platoon. When they return, they are tortured by dreams that hint at a mind-altering nightmare. Back in the States, Shaw’s mother (an unforgettably evil Angela Lansbury) is trying to secure the vice-presidential nomination for her husband. It is Marco’s investigation into what really happened to them in Korea that animates this cast of characters, who seek out their destinies with grave implications not only for themselves but the United States. It was a brilliant movie, perfectly cast and incredibly smart, with antagonists all too familiar to those who lived through the Cold War.
So why remake it? Would you remake The Godfather or Citizen Kane or Modern Times? Could you add something to it, make it more relevant or arresting or important? The answer is an obvious and resounding “No!” They were perfect movies made at the perfect time with the perfect ensemble of actors and writers and cinematographers, etc. It doesn’t take a purist to suggest that a remake can only fail when the original nailed it so well. So why did Demme remake The Manchurian Candidate, a film that qualifies as a classic? The answer becomes plainly clear within moments after the film begins: politics. Demme recasts the Sinatra role with Denzel Washington (sadly becoming the black Gene Hackman with his nonstop B-movie appearances) and the Harvey role with Liev Schreiber and the Angela Lansbury role with Meryl Streep. Now the enemies aren’t communists, they’re multinational corporations and conservative politicians and a doctor who looks like Adolf Hitler (without the ’stache) who are exploiting a group of men unfortunate enough to have been taken prisoner in the first Gulf War. There are other changes from the original that do nothing but diminish any suspension of disbelief the viewer rightly expects. Such as, say, a major political party that doesn’t know who the vice-presidential candidate will be right up to the convention. Or, say, an electronic monitoring implant so poorly installed that Washington can pop it out of his back as easily as one does a zit. And I’m not even going to go into the absolutely amateurish machinations that force Washington’s character to commit the fateful act that Harvey was preordained and more logically reasoned to commit in the first film.
This film may be called The Manchurian Candidate, but it is as forgettable as the first one was perfect.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].