The Manchurian Candidate
It’s rare enough for any remake to be greeted as a worthy exercise, but it’s almost unheard of for one dusting off a recognised classic to be acclaimed. And yet, The Manchurian Candidate ’04, which has since slipped into obscurity, had mostly rave reviews. My recollection is that I was also generally quite appreciative. Which belies the stark truth that, regardless of a few odd innovations and devices that might have been put to better use in an entirely different mind-control assassin project (ie one with a different name), Jonathan Demme’s movie is a mess.
Geoff Andrew in Time-Out was one singing its praises. Quoth Geoff, “this timely entertainment matches, perhaps even surpasses its predecessor”. Really? Why would that be? Because, “Here is an America where truth, democracy and proper ethical considerations are imperilled not by Cold War enemies but by unbridled capitalism itself. Dynastic ambition, hollow patriotism, meaningless slogans, the fuelling of fear and paranoia, media complicity and puppet figureheads under the influence are the order of the day”. No, I’m not really seeing the “sharp, slick, adult, darkly comic thriller” he describes, or its “more outlandish aspects” being “metaphors for contemporary reality” (the implants).
In this take, Daniel Pyne (Pacific Heights, White Sands) rejigs the Richard Condon novel, in part at the behest of producer Tina Sinatra – who wanted Raymond as a political candidate rather than the assassin and Marco more integral to the plot – to make the title a rather extraneous reference to the Manchurian Corporation (yes, really). They’re the unbridled capitalists Andrew referred to, considering the safest better to ensure the safety of the nation is to have someone in the White House who is reliable and controlled, “the first privately owned and operated President of the United States” (obviously, this being Hollywood’s paradigm of the way political office works, a free agent can theoretically enter the White House, rather than one selected and controlled by the elites. Any actual Manchurian Corporation would realise this and wouldn’t dare to tread on anyone’s toes. But still…)
The thing is, of course, that political polarities vs cynical practicality was a big part of the original (which is, incidentally, much, much funnier than this movie while also managing to be suspenseful, layered and quite tragic). In most respects, you’re getting a persistent sense from Demme and Pyne of “How can we make this different/ distinct/justified?” and coming up short. Sometimes they don’t even try. So instead of the brilliant solitaire conceit, there’s simply addressing the subject a certain way and DP Tak Fujimoto adjusting the lighting to suggest a “heightened state”. And the “endless search to come up with a memorable dream motif”. Which amounts to slightly racist Arab imagery. Which they realise, so try to defuse it by having “the enemy” plastered over it in an overt propaganda sense. Shaw’s murders of Congressman Jordan (Jon Voight) and his daughter Jocelyn (Vera Farmiga) go from being extraordinary and chilling with Frankenheimer to simply so-so drownings.
So too, in the original, the brainwashing was non-invasive, so now they get messy and insert microchips. But what do these chips do, precisely? The ones in the back, nothing discernibly, since Marco’s is removed but he’s still conditionable (and if they’re tracking chips, why bother following Marco around?) On the Demme/Pyne commentary, they suggest “they” want Marco to notice his back/chip now (this was made clear in deleted material, apparently). But why do they want to? As for the brain chips, Shaw has a new one inserted. To what end? New instructions? Does it just wear out? If so, does Marco not need a new one too? Demme and Pyne waffle on about whether the proceedings are real or in the mind (the whole movie might be in Marco’s), but if you go that route, you run the risk of the audience not caring (given the movie wasn’t a hit – at an $80m cost and $96m gross, you could argue it was an outright bomb – I don’t think they were successful).
Consequently, they debate whether the doctor is really on the train when Marco sees him in the toilet. On the other hand, this occasionally works in the movie’s favour; the false wall in Shaw’s suite reveals an entire lab, and it’s such a giddily absurd conceit that you’re unsure if it can really be there for a spell (added to which is the disorientating infinite regression of a painting above Shaw’s bed of the room itself, which presumably has a painting above the bed within it).
Problems are further compounded by starting with a buggy (and very good) Jeffrey Wright, before moving on to a buggy Major Marco (Denzel Washington). Washington’s never that persuasive when he’s “acting” too visibly, and this is in the territory of being doped up in Ricochet or aspergic in Roman J Israel, Esq. He all but says “I’m not c-c-c-crazy” while involuntarily twitching. In that sense, Marco’s much more of a star role than it was for Sinatra, but the crooner wanting to get in and get out ensured the benefit of avoiding split psychotics.
This picture spends far too much time with Marco, yet his situation is significantly less interesting than Shaw’s. Except that Shaw, in a dependable performance from Liev Schreiber, is denied all the shading given to the character in the original; there’s no flashback to the relationship with Jocelyn, and there’s no rekindling of it, so her and her father’s deaths are by-the-by. There’s also very little sense of a rapport with Marco (even given that Marco in the original comments “He’s impossible to like”, you get the sense of a genuine connection through mutual experiences).
Demme and Pyne reference the movie’s last section as “extremely challenging”, but they’ve done that to themselves by making the whole deal of who and when and how Marco and Shaw are triggered and de-triggered entirely murky, arguing, wrongly in this case, it’s “much more powerful for not knowing”. Maybe under a different director, but Demme makes a pig’s ear of things, alas (he was never really suited to major studio projects; possibly the worst thing that happened to him was The Silence of the Lambs becoming a smash hit).
They consider it enough that there’s the mantra “No matter how hard they try to control you, there is a little piece of the human spirit… that cannot be affected”, but there’s no way to parse any sense from the way in which events transpire (the Wiki summary is no help). We see Shaw and Marco meet and the latter triggered – we know he is, via a Tak lighting effect – as Shaw tells him “You don’t think they factored you in?” But then he’s mysteriously able to shoot Shaw and his evil ma – so de-triggered – yet stopped when he turns the gun on himself – so… retriggered? It’s even less satisfying with Shaw, who goes from the meeting to a liaison with his mother (“In the moment he chooses to join in with the romance”), all the while resisting the mind-control programming, owing to the realisation he killed Jocelyn and her father? So he’s out, then in (phone call), then in (mum), then out (looking suggestively to Marco in the rafters).
And yet, all of that seems quite easy to excuse when placed next to the nonsense of the FBI involvement. I’m not going to pick on Kimberly Elise, since the Eugenie Rosie of this version is completely unbelievable, but we’re inclined to be suspicious at first, then allayed when she reveals she’s merely using Marco because she’s FBI (Demme and Pyne would have us believe she takes on the original Marco’s function, but they can dream on). However, she cares about him and has his best interests at heart, so she… completely ignores him when he enters campaign HQ, drawing attention to someone else on the video monitor.
So Rosie knows Marco’s there, which means she’s going to stop him assassinating anyone, most of all the President-elect, right? Not on your nelly. Neither she nor her fellows keep tabs on where Marco is, such that when she then decides to try and find Marco and stop him, one has to assume she’s the ineptest agent the FBI ever employed (it’s a congested field, admittedly).
And yet then, later, someone else’s image is photoshopped over Marco on the video, almost as if that was the plan all along… In which case, did she want an assassination to take place that she could pin on Manchurian Global? In which case, part two, any of Marco/Shaw/Shaw’s mum/The President-elect were expendable as a means to achieve that end (I guess you could argue Marco and Shaw pre-planned to kill the latter and his mother because the programming didn’t take effect at the earlier meeting, and informed Rosie of the same, but that doesn’t match what we see on screen). The whole thing’s a garbled, convoluted mess.
Apparently, there was a stage where the makers considered having the climax in a hotel kitchen, à la the RFK psyop, but had trouble with the logistics of who would be where. They had a trouble with a lot here. I’m presuming those bandages in the nightmares were real, since they did actually perform brain surgery, but somehow, on their return three days later, the tell-tale signs of such procedures were absent? Demme and Pyne comment that the coverup/implication of Manchurian Global at the end is cool because it “frightens us with the idea that conspiracy can be a good thing”. The only frightening thing about the ending is the notion a conspiracy can make zero sense.
Demme litters his move with name performers who have very little to do. Dean Stockwell (alleged satanist), Miguel Ferrer, Jude Ciccolella, Ted Levine and Željko Ivanek are wheeled on. Anthony Mackie and Pablo Schreiber are present in early roles. Robyn Hitchcock is an independent contractor. Simon McBurney is really good as Noyle. Bruno Ganz’ Delp (written as younger) probably needed a few dialogue tweaks (intoning “man” every sentence sounds forced).
There are more than enough dark implications among the actors present to consider the ever-pervasive Hollywood satanic elites, which goes neatly with all the MKUltra plotting. Liev and Naomi Watts (a Nicole Kidman pal, which leads to her dad) have raised a trans kid, Jon Voight raised Angelina Jolie (nuff said, whatever his current political credentials), Meryl is (I mean, was) a popular Hollywood hermaphrodite. Of whom, her senator isn’t a patch on Angela Lansbury in the original. It’s one of those autopilot Streep roles. Demme was generally good with actors, and the to-camera addresses (as POV) are often effective, but there’s never a sense he has the measure of the movie as a whole, only individual sequences.
Raymond Shaw: I served under him. He was a good man.
Eleanor Shaw: Well, that’s what the neighbours always say about serial killers.
One can single out the occasional leading line here. Marco’s insistence “It’s not Gulf War Syndrome” (because… he knows it’s caused by vaccines?) Which includes one of the platoon. And another dying of “so-called natural causes”: in 9/11 at the Pentagon (since it’s obviously not the case, that implies the plane hitting the Pentagon is also a lie). Then there’s Eleanor telling her son “The assassin always dies, baby. It’s necessary for national healing”. Because, obviously, such events are always scripted. This take on The Manchurian Candidate is far from an unwatchable movie, but it’s both frustratingly incoherent in its plotting and motivation and entirely redundant as a re-envisioning. In contrast, the 1962 picture remains every bit as potent as it was 60 years ago.