Full disclosure: I believe that John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Manchurian Candidate is a classic political satire and pulse-pounder that no one needed to remake. That said, director Jonathan Demme’s remake isn’t half bad. In fact, it’s a mesmerizing mind-teaser that finds its own way into the material, adapted from Richard Condon’s 1959 novel. Instead of the brainwashing Commie threat posed by the first film — set in the Korean War era — the menace this time is the mind control exerted by powerful corporations in the Halliburton-Tyco-Enron era. The climax, with an assassin holed up at a political convention, couldn’t be timelier.p>enzel Washington steps into the Frank Sinatra role of Ben Marco, a Gulf War vet haunted by nightmares of combat. He fears that New York congressman Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), a heroic sergeant in his platoon, may actually be a pawn, a sleeper the mind controllers want to put in the White House. When Raymond’s senator mother, Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), ramrods Raymond in as the VP nominee, the fuse is lit.
The script, by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, works in fits and ts as a host of characters march on, including an old-guard liberal senator (Jon Voight) and a suspicious flirt (the excellent Kimberly Elise) who picks up Ben on a train. It’s the skillful handling by Demme — back in Silence of the Lambs territory — and the fireworks acting that right the balance. Washington, in the rare part that leaves him trapped and defenseless, is terrifically affecting. And Schreiber catches both the cold snob and the lost boy in Raymond. Streep stands playfully outside the monster-mommy role that the brilliant Angela Lansbury fully inhabited, but you can’t take your eyes off her as she terrorizes her pol cronies and casts lustful looks at her son. Streep has never been this fierce, this diabolically funny.
All hell breaks loose as Demme catches the audience in a vise of churning suspense and corrosive wit. Still, this riveting film is marred by compromises — such as a switch of assassins to create an unpersuasive upbeat ending — that keep it in the shadow of its predecessor.