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The Manchurian Candidate (15)

Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by director Jonathan Demme and screenplay co-writer Daniel Pyne. The Enemy Within: Inside The Manchurian Candidate. The Cast of The Manchurian Candidate. Liev Schreiber Screen Test. Political Pundits with optional director commentary.

AT A time when the connection between powerful business corporations and key presidential figures is never far from the headlines, the arrival of a new Manchurian Candidate seems particularly pertinent.

Jonathan Demme's clever remake of the classic John Frankenheimer movie (which, in itself, was based on Richard Condon's paranoia-strewn novel) succeeds in delivering contemporary audiences a suitably realistic 'what if' scenario and then keeping them gripped for the better part of two hours. It's fair to say, Michael Moore would have a field day.

The story, this time, finds Denzel Washington's Gulf War veteran, US Army Major Bennett Marco, spending his days giving inspirational lectures about his unit's ambush during the war, and the heroics of platoon member, Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schrieber), only to be haunted by memories of the same ambush by night.

When he is cornered by Geoffrey Wright's equally traumatised former colleague, who claims to be suffering from the same hallucinations, Marco is compelled to investigate and finds that Shaw might not be the hero everyone thinks he is.

Yet to make matters worse, Shaw is being groomed as a potential vice-president by his domineering Senator mother, Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep), and seems to have been turned into a pawn in a much bigger game, making Marco's claims all the more difficult to prove.

Demme's movie, while bound to suffer by comparions from anyone who loves the original, is a similarly edgy affair that actually recalls the paranoia dramas of the Seventies in an almost effortless manner - a ploy which increases the enjoyment factor.

Shot in such a way as to heighten the sense of paranoia, dread and fear which surrounds most of the characters, the film wisely opts to play its cards close to its chest, forcing audiences to work out for themselves who is telling the truth, and why.

As a result, viewers can never entirely be sure about the sanity of Washington's character, or the complicity of Schrieber, even though Streep's wildly exaggerated politician plays like a more deviant version of Margaret Thatcher in her prime.

It's in the performances that the movie ultimately stands or falls, and come the climax, which sees an assassin holed up at a political convention, audiences should be suituably tense attempting to work out who will survive - and who won't.

Washington, as ever, provides a commanding presence as the tortured Marco, drawing in elements of the desperation and darkness which helped to make his turn in Man on Fire so memorable, while Schrieber gets the mix of creepiness and charisma just right, continually toying with our perception of him - is he a knowing pawn, or merely a victim of his mother's manipulations? The scenes between the two crackle with energy.

Streep, too, cuts a formidable politician, even if some of her histrionics veer towards the pantomime at key moments.

Yet, thanks to the urgency of Demme's direction, which has to rate as his best since Silence of the Lambs, and the trickery of screenwriters' Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, who have clearly swatted up on what makes this sort of thing work, the film remains a compelling and downright exciting thriller which should keep the conspiracy theorists guessing up to and beyond the nailbiting conclusion.

It may be a work of fiction, but it certainly seems to delight in stoking up the fires surrounding the current political climate.

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