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The Manchurian Candidate - Preview & US reaction



Preview by: Jack Foley

SILENCE of the Lambs director, Jonathan Demme, may have been a little quiet since achieving the Oscar-winning heights of his definitive serial killer movie, but he appears to be back with a vengeance with his latest thriller.

The Manchurian Candidate may be a remake of the 1962 film, starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, but judging by the reaction from America, it marks a major return to form for the director, while also being a worthwhile re-imagining to boot.

The original told the story of a Korean War veteran who was brainwashed by the Chinese as part of a Communist plot to assassinate the president. It was itself based upon the novel, The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon, who also wrote the novel that inspired Prizzi’s Honour.

The remake, however, finds Denzel Washington as US Army Major, Bennett Marco, unable to sleep at night, as he is troubled by nightmarish dreams of his time spent in Kuwait.

By day, Marco gives inspiring speeches about his platoon's ambush in the desert, and the heroics of Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), who was awarded the Medal of Honour for saving Marco's crew.

But Marco becomes increasingly terrified by his dreams and begins to privately wonder whether the two soldiers who died in the firefight might have met darker fates than officially recorded.

His subsequent investigations question whether Shaw really is the glorious hero that everyone thinks he is, and threaten to undermine his bid to become vice-president, so much so that Marco is forced to take on the growing might of the electoral candidate, and his controversial mother (Meryl Streep), before he gains a significant foothold in the corridors of power.

The original Manchurian Candidate remains one of the great thrillers of its time, so remaking it was always going to be a difficult task.

Especially since, according to movie legend, the film’s original star, Sinatra, became so traumatised by the assassination of JFK a year after its release (and certain similarities between the two) that he kept the film relatively unseen for over 20 years.

Prior to his death, however, Sinatra is said to have approved the production of a remake, through his daughter, Nancy.

And up stepped Demme, who decided to put a contemporary spin on the story, drawing in many issues that were relevant to America today.

And even though it was written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris several years ago, and the movie was filmed in 2003, many of its revelations and talking points feel as though they could have been written last week.

Demme admitted to adding some stuff, late on, during recent press junkets for the film in the States, but even he admits that ‘wound up with not quite the fantasy movie we started out to make, a sort of escapist cautionary tale; it took on added resonance as events went on’.

US reaction

And the trick seems to have worked, with US critics lining up to heap praise upon it.

Variety, for instance, noted that ‘this political thriller, about a brainwashed soldier being positioned for the White House, provides a delectable network of dramatic tripwires that teases the mind and quickens the pulse’.

While the Hollywood Reporter wrote: "Simultaneously brings the original Cold War scenario bracingly up to date with a story line that pulses with a topical resonance while paying respectful homage to the late Frankenheimer's artistic vision."

Ebert and Roeper stated ‘…kudos to Jonathan Demme for doing something different and not just trying to duplicate that original classic’.

While website, The Movieboy.com, felt that it was ‘absolutely riveting entertainment, a chilling portrait of human paranoia also posing as an engrossing and visually vibrant political thriller. This is one arresting film’.

Continuing the good word was the Los Angeles Times, which wrote that it is ‘a psychological thriller that is richer in texture and nuance than its predecessor without sacrificing impact’.

While Rolling Stone referred to it as ‘a mesmerising mind-teaser that finds its own way into the material, adapted from Richard Condon's 1959 novel’.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, meanwhile, was similarly full of praise, stating that ‘Washington, Schreiber, Streep and company - and Demme - have managed to make all the malevolent machinations seem relevant again’.

While Philadelphia Weekly opined that it is ‘a dense and thorough reimagining of the material - it's got the same mordant cynicism running through its veins, only updated for an even darker, more jittery era’.

The New York Times, too, raved, stating that ‘Jonathan Demme, updating John Frankenheimer’s classic exercise in cold war liberal paranoia, has made a witty, anxious thriller for a new age of political uncertainty’.

The Dallas Morning News gets the final word, however, concluding that ‘this is one popcorn movie that provides food for thought, all the while remaining tense and witty’.

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