'Manchurian' remake teems with paranoia

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Special to the Journal-World

Denzel Washington portrays an Army officer who believes he is linked to a political conspiracy in "The Manchurian Candidate."

Certain films should stay off limits to being remade.

So when the idea came about to modernize "The Manchurian Candidate," it sounded as sacrilegious as monkeying with "Casablanca" or "The Godfather." ("And starring Colin Farrell as Michael Corleone!")

John Frankenheimer's original 1962 effort was one of those singular pieces of filmmaking that was as monumental as the legend that sprang up around it. The satirical, cynical masterpiece created its own sub-genre -- the paranoid thriller -- and featured scene upon scene of superb cinematic manipulation. It's opening sequence in which brainwashed soldiers believed they were attending a lady's garden club meeting ranks right up there with the "Psycho" shower murder in terms of editing.

That said, this new version of "The Manchurian Candidate" is impressive in its own right.

Rather than judging the movie as a remake, it's almost more appropriate to deem it as a companion piece. Whereas the original was set a decade after the Korean War, Jonathan Demme's updating is placed in 2004, with the Gulf War serving as the key event that is the starting point for the conflict. Now, the threat of communism has been supplanted by that of corporate opportunism.

"My dreams seem more real to me than what I actually remember happening over there," says Ben Marco (Denzel Washington). The Army major survived a harrowing experience in 1991. His men were lost on patrol in the desert of Kuwait, and only the heroic actions of Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) saved the day.

Or did they?

Marco is having recurring nightmares that his men were captured and subjected to surgical procedures and brainwashing. He becomes convinced that Shaw was not a war hero but just some pawn in a larger scheme.

This is complicated by the fact that Shaw is now a senator and has been named his party's presumed vice-presidential nominee in the upcoming election. This is largely due to the influence of his powerful mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep).

Thus it's a race for Marco to uncover the truth before Shaw's nomination becomes official during the party's convention.

What makes Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate" so effective is how the bizarre plot seems less far-fetched than ever. The idea of a corporation fielding its own political candidates fits right in line with the Halliburton scandal and many of the accusations leveled at George W. Bush in "Fahrenheit 9/11."

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Manchurian Candidate ***

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This gripping remake serves as a strong companion piece to the original 1962 political thriller. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme effectively updates the plot -- the communist menace has been supplanted by corporate opportunism -- and delivers a movie (and fine performance from Denzel Washington) that bathes itself in paranoia.

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Advancements in technology have also made the story (by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris) easier to swallow in terms of things like tracking devices being implanted into unknowing patients. These also help amp up the level of tension, as it seems like Marco is being watched at every move.

In fact, this film may hold the honor of being the most paranoid piece of cinema ever made. It certainly ranks right up there with some of the best post-Watergate efforts of the 1970s: "The Conversation," "The Parallax View" and "Three Days of the Condor."

Demme's first real winner since 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs" achieves this subtext of sinister persecution both internally and externally. We know Marco and his comrades have been set up. But we also know that he has suffered severe battlefield stress and been subjected to mind control, so it's never quite clear what is real and what isn't from his perspective.

Washington gives one of his top two or three performances, fully capturing the pain of a broken man trying to piece his life together after a traumatic incident.

At one point Washington's Marco is attempting to convince a sympathetic senator (Jon Voight) of what he has discovered. The politician reacts to the soldier's story, saying, "And you bring me rumors and conjectures?"

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Special to the Journal-World

Liev Schreiber, left, plays a political candidate who endures the demands of his controlling mother (Meryl Streep) in the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate."

Marco responds, "I started with nightmares. Rumors and conjectures, that's a giant leap forward."

Also impressive is Schreiber. He balances the tricky role of portraying someone who is sufficiently charismatic to be a successful politician, but bland and weak enough to represent a cad who has gained every career advantage through his domineering mother.

Only Streep fares worse than the first film's Angela Lansbury, whose icy turn remains one of the great portrayals in screen villainy. The Oscar-winning Streep devotes a lot of eye-rolling condescension to even her most throwaway lines, and often comes across like she is channeling Hillary Clinton.

A right-wing conspiracy being led by an ambitious Hillary-type politician? Wow, that would make you paranoid.

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