The Manchurian Candidate (2004) (***)

Posted on September 1st, 2004 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

I used to like Denzel Washington a lot as an actor. But then he slipped into a fairly repetitive rut of playing himself in every role, and I lost interest. I didn’t see Training Day, but I heard he gave an interesting, non-Denzel-like performance. That piqued my interest in his movies again, to a certain degree. But then I heard that he was starring in a remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Now, I loved the 1964 original, and thought it was way, way ahead of its time. It was also one of those movies that (I thought) never should or would be remade, because what would the point be? How could one surpass the shocking bizarre-ness mixed with reality that caused the first one to perfectly capture Cold War paranoia? When I heard about the remake, I knew two things: first, that I would never see it, and second, that it could never measure up to the first.

Well, I was half-right. It certainly doesn’t live up to the gestalt of the first, because there’s just no way they could surpass the surprise of the movie and storyline springing into existence. But, after hearing endlessly positive buzz and reviews, I did go see it. And, I have to say, it doesn’t suck, and it is not the abomination that I was sure it would be.

The story has been updated, with the backstory occurring during the first Gulf War, and the primary story being told pretty much in the present day. The basic storyline is that during the Gulf War, a patrol of soldiers goes missing, and then turns up several days later with an amazing story about how one of them heroically and single-handedly saved them all during an attempted ambush. The “hero”, played by Liev Schreiber, is the well-born son of a powerful US Senator, played by Meryl Streep. Although he was born to the manor, he eschewed his rightful place as a moneyed magnate and volunteered for the Army just in time to ship out for the first Gulf War.

Upon his return he is nominated for, and receives, the Congressional Medal of Honor by his platoon commander (Denzel Washington). He then quickly moves up the political ladder (thanks to the maniacally Machiavillian machinations of his manipulative mother) to join his Party’s ticket as the Vice Presidential candidate.

However, all is not as it seems. After a speaking engagement, Denzel’s character is confronted by one of his former squad members, who rambles on about strange dreams of their lost days that don’t match his memory of what happened. It turns out that Denzel has been having the same dreams, and decides to approach his old (and newly politically powerful) friend (Schreiber’s character) to see if he’s been having the dreams or if he can use his political clout to try and figure out what really happened to them during their lost days.

Suffice it to say that drama and intrigue ensue. All the primary actors do excellent jobs, particularly Meryl Streep, whose Senator seems like a combination of Hilary Clinton, Joseph McCarthy, and Hitler. Denzel is very un-Denzel-like, with a sort of quiet, sour manner, and very little overt emotion of any kind. If the first film had never existed, I’d probably be giving this one another half-star, but it does derive its basic storyline, characters, and concepts from the original, so loses a few points on originality.

But, that being said, it’s still a very entertaining movie. If you haven’t seen the original, go see this one and you’ll probably enjoy it greatly. If you have seen the original, this version is still worth a look due to the good script, updated story, and strong lead performances.

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