A 'Candidate' worth backing

A remake of 'The Manchurian Candidate' is edgy and topical.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

"The Manchurian Candidate," a 1962 movie about a group of soldiers who are captured during the Korean war and brainwashed so that they become sleeper agents, was ripe for remaking.

The two versions are different, of course. When John Frankenheimer first filmed this story, Americans were consumed with the cold war.

"The Manchurian Candidate" distilled these concerns. It blended qualms about communist domination with suspiciousness of high technology as represented by mind control. Jonathan Demme's new rendition updates the plot, changing the Korean war platoon into a group of Desert Storm soldiers.

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More tellingly, the first version had to make its female villain the wife of a United States senator, since the political game was even more male-dominated in 1962 than it is now - but the remake can make her a senator herself. This streamlines the story, and tweaks audience curiosity as to whether the filmmakers had Hillary Rodham Clinton in the back of their minds.

The most revealing difference between the two versions is one of tone. While both go in for grotesquerie, Frankenheimer indulged this in the form of dark humor - making the brainwashed American soldiers hallucinate so that they see Asian enemies as ladies at a garden party.

Demme manifests grotesquerie not as comic absurdity but as flat-out paranoia. There's little amusement in a hero's discovery that he's controlled by a computer implant in his body, mysteries rooted in post-Gulf War illnesses, and the machinations of a corporation that could be manipulating global US policy.

Demme's movie would be more engrossing if it weren't far too long (way over two hours) and if Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber didn't seem so determined to ape Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey from the 1962 edition.

Denzel Washington is stellar, though, and so is Tak Fujimoto's cinematography, which is as edgy and antsy as the story it tells.

Rated R; contains violence and vulgarity.

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