Movie Review: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

But he isn't even Chinese!

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright

Directed by: Jonathan Demme

First off, I need to say that I’ve never seen the original 1962 version of this film, so I can’t compare how well Jonathan Demme‘s remake compares to the John Frankenheimer classic. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, as it would allow me to judge the film as its own entity, blessed with a fresh perspective that most reviewers wouldn’t have.

Unfortunately, when I was finished watching the movie, I felt that I couldn’t accurately judge how good a film it was without having seen the original. Of course, it is its own self-contained story, and previous knowledge of the original is unnecessary to follow the story of the newer version. But the thing is, it felt like the things I liked most about the movie were probably the elements it didn’t come up with itself. I enjoyed the story, the political intrigue, the idea of using mind control on soldiers, the conspiracy theories, and the overall tone of paranoia. But, without having seen what they did in 1962, I really don’t know how much credit to give Demme for any of these ideas.

As a film, 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate isn’t that impressive. It’s solid entertainment, a thriller with some brainy ideas (again, ideas that might’ve all come from a movie that might not have needed updating), featuring engaging actors giving solid performances. But, other than the story and ideas presented, it just didn’t grab me. I felt the storytelling was rather pedestrian, and downright clunky at times. The film gets bogged down early by some really awkward exposition attempting to give a back story on Liev Schreiber‘s Raymond Shaw, which proved unnecessary since a recurring theme of the movie is that his story can easily be repeated by characters in the movie.

Demme injects the movie with the feeling of uneasiness, filming it in such a way as to share the crippling paranoia and mental manipulation experienced by main character Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), Raymond Shaw, and others (including Jeffrey Wright, one of the most underrated actors working today). While I appreciated the attempt, using isolated one shots of characters shot through wide lenses and such, I didn’t feel it to be as effective as it should have been. I think the problem is that it was too obvious, I was aware of what Demme was doing more than I was feeling what he was doing. The idea was sound, but I think he went to it too early in the movie, forcing it on Denzel’s POV before we get the sense of how deeply affected his character has been by outside forces. I noticed it right away, then couldn’t stop noticing it thereafter.

As I said, the acting is solid throughout, particularly with Schreiber’s performance as a clearly conflicted Raymond Shaw. At times he is oddly cool, almost robotic, others he’s desperately fighting for control over himself and almost becoming completely unhinged. Washington and Meryl Streep are solid throughout, but nothing spectacular, just the quality you’d expect from them.

What’s particularly interesting for me is that a lot of the content for the movie felt familiar to me, even though I’ve never seen or read the source material. It’s standard-fare conspiracy theory thriller stuff, with a big bad multinational corporation taking the place of Communists for the modern age. Corporations have become the modern go-to villains, so while the update works, it isn’t exactly groundbreaking. Neither is the Oedipal themes examined between Raymond Shaw his mother Eleanor (Streep). In fact, if I had to pick my biggest complaint about the movie is that its familiarity ruined a lot the suspense for me. A good thriller should be half a step ahead of its viewers, so the big reveals shock and surprise them without feeling like they’ve come out of left field. Instead, this movie always felt two steps behind, revealing things long after I’d figured them out for myself.

All in all, it’s a decent thriller that works as entertainment, but is certainly not essential viewing. There’s some really interesting ideas and themes explored, with some fun plotting and solid performances, but I’m not sure it has anything to offer that one couldn’t get from renting the original. I won’t know until I watch the original, so for now I’m left wondering if there was any point in remaking it in the first place.

Related Reviews:
Constant Gardener, The (2005)
Inside Man (2006)
Syriana (2005)

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