Denzel & Streep Star in Remake of Cold War Classic

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In 1959, when Richard Condon wrote The Manchurian Candidate, the world was at the height of the Cold War. His chilling best seller, set during the Korean War, involved a Communist Chinese plot to brainwash American prisoners-of-war to assassinate a U.S. Presidential nominee.

The political potboiler readily resonated with a country already vigilant about the "Red Menace" due to the paranoia generated by the McCarthy Era hysteria..

The book was brought to the big screen three years later by the late John Frankenheimer, legendary director of such screen classics as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and The Train (1964). His fairly faithful adaptation starred Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Janet Leigh.

After President Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, an ex-Marine who had spent over 30 months behind the Iron Curtain, The Manchurian Candidate was suppressed for the next 25 years out of the fear of inspiring another copy-cat killer. Today, this substantial overhaul comes courtesy of Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme, best known for the relatively riveting Silence of the Lambs.

Manchurian 2004 features a trio of Oscar-winners in Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Jon Voight. The famous-faced cast also includes Liev Schreiber, Kimberly Elise, Jeffrey Wright, Dean Stockwell, gospel singer BeBe Winans, pantomimist Bill Irwin, Miguel Ferrer, Obba Babatunde', comedian Al Franken, Anna Deavare Smith, author Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), director Sidney Lumet, hip-hopper Fab Five Freddy, essayist Roy Blount, Jr., movie producer Roger Corman, network news anchor Forest Sawyer, folk singer Tom Chapin and other recognizables.

Perhaps Demme's being distracted by the presence of so many celebs on the set played a part in dragging down the production, but this version simply fails to measure up to the first. The plot has been revised to take place in the wake of Gulf War "Desert Storm" with the scheme being hatched not by Commies, but by an avaricious, power-hungry defense contractor called Manchrian Global, a thinly-veiled, Halliburton look-a-like.

At our point of departure, we find insomniac, decorated Army veteran Ben Marco (Washington) devoting most of his days to giving inspirational speeches about the heroics of Raymond Shaw (Schreiber), the Sergeant who saved the day when their platoon was ambushed in the Kuwaiti desert. Shaw, meanwhile, is being groomed for higher political office by his overbearing, megalomaniacal mother (Streep), herself a U.S. Senator.

The problem is that all the soldiers from their unit seem to be plagued by similar nightmares. The question is whether the symptoms are simply Gulf War Syndrome, as suggested by V.A. doctors, or evidence of an elaborate, diabolical mind-control scheme to turn the White House into a pawn of big business. Can Ben ignore the voices in his own head long enough to take on the increasingly Machiavellian Manchurian?

Standouts Denzel and Streep carry this careening caper laced with more twists than a Chubby Checker concert. Overall, a film more confusing than compelling, and primarily amusing because of all the parallels to
present-day politics.

Very good (2.5 stars)

Reviewed By Kam Williams

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