Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) Updates The Original Movie For Better and For Worse


Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) is a hero. That's what everyone says. Responsible for saving the lives of nearly everybody in his platoon back in the early 1990s, Shaw has gone from being a legendary veteran to a potential Vice-President candidate. His former superior, Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) spends his days prevailing people with tales of Shaw's courage. But what if the truth wasn't what it seemed? Recurring dreams that Marco and Shaw keep having indicate that maybe something else happened to Marco and Shaw's team on that fateful day on the battlefield. Maybe their minds were altered as part of a larger global conspiracy...and maybe that conspiracy has grisly plans for supposed hero Shaw.

The 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate makes several updates to the 1962 film its remaking. Some of these are to be expected. For example, the new Manchurian now takes place in the 21st-century while it's also able to incorporate elements of violence that just wouldn't have been allowed in a 1962 feature. Interestingly, though, I was surprised by how the newer Manchurian is actually a more palatable beast than its predecessor. For example, the incestuous vibes between Shaw and his mother, Elenor Shaw (Meryl Streep), are more implied here than they are in the original Manchurian film. The most prominent examples of how the new Manchurian Candidate is tamer compared to the 1962 movie, though, can be found in its ending.

The grim conclusion of the original Candidate saw a suicide followed up by a grim eulogy and refused to give any closure to what happened to the people who brainwashed Shaw and company. Meanwhile, the newer Manchurian Candidate opts for a tidier ending. The U.S. government steps in to alter security camera footage to make sure Marco gets no blame for any of the events of the climax. Shaw's demise is framed as a prolonged act of heroic self-sacrifice. Most notably, though, is that the new movie promises consequences for the people responsible for turning Shaw into a monster. In this case, a corporation called Manchurian Global is the one in charge of the whole conspiracy.

Manchurian Candidate ends with an explicit promise that these few bad eggs will be brought to justice. It's a disappointing conclusion but not because it deviates from the 1962 movie. On the contrary, I was thoroughly impressed with how often screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris opted to take the story of The Manchurian Candidate in their own direction rather than just do a beat-for-beat retread. Unfortunately, the wrap-up for Manchurian Candidate is just too clean-cut. Seeing big corporations get their just desserts is too divorced from reality for a movie that's been previously hewing to a grounded aesthetic. A more ominous and realistic ending would have provided a more tonally consistent conclusion to this take on The Manchurian Candidate.

Aside from a disappointing home stretch, though, The Manchurian Candidate actually works pretty well as a nice thriller diversion. It helps that this material isn't being handled by an amateur cast & crew. Legendary director Johnathan Demme is overseeing a star-studded cast and all those familiar names ensure some level of craftsmanship is always present throughout the production. After all, Denzel Washington is a constantly charismatic lead actor. Your movie has to be really terrible to undermine his endearing acting chops. Washington provides a likable presence that the viewer can vibe to while also lending believability to scenes where Marco is grappling with the larger conspiracy theory hiding in plain sight.

The best member of the cast, though, has to be Liev Schreiber as Raymond Shaw. It's an inspired piece of casting to put Schreiber in this role considering his tall muscular frame makes him the perfect intimidating figure for whenever Shaw is turned into an obedient killing machine. However, as films like Spotlight have demonstrated, Schreiber can also work very well in quiet humanistic roles as well. This means Schreiber can work as the public figure version of Shaw as well, somebody who has got a presence you can't help but take a shine to. The fact that Schreiber works so nicely in portraying the likable side of Shaw makes his work as the assassin side of Shaw all the eerier. I'm not sure we needed this new Manchurian Candidate but at least it delivered strong lead turns from the likes of Washington and Schreiber.

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