Movies — The Manchurian Candidate (R)

Denzel Washington may be the last line of defense against a government coup in the tense remake The Manchurian Candidate.

Tense, if for no other reason, because remakes of classic movies almost never work and because you never know how an audience is going to react to a scene hinting at mother/son incest.

This time around, the Manchurian in The Manchurian Candidate does not refer to the Communist China-led/ North Korea-facilitated plot to take over America. Instead, it refers to the giant financial/military-industrial firm Manchurian Global’s attempt to install a very business-friendly leader in the White House.

Raymond Shaw (Liev Schrieber) is poised to be a handsome young swinging single vice president. The son of a senator and the grandson of an industrial tycoon, Shaw earned JFK, PT 109-style hero status from a mission during the first Gulf War where he saved his squad with a little nice shootin’.

The captain of that squad, Ben Marco (Washington), remembers Shaw’s brave actions. In fact, all the men remember Shaw’s actions perfectly and identically and using the exact same words. However, when they dream, other memories come in to their heads, jumbled memories featuring painful torture and the execution-style deaths of two of their comrades. Marco suspects that, despite Shaw’s outward appearances of smiling success, he also suffers from an assortment of mental anguish stemming from the muddled events of the mission. He struggles to get to Shaw, to try to make the would-be VP admit to the feelings Marco is certain Shaw is experiencing.

Standing in the way of Shaw’s admission that he isn’t in complete control of his faculties is his pushy mother, Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep). Her ambition is endless and, we are absolutely certain, that which she could not win through hard work and intelligence she has won through deception, murder and bartering away any soul she might have to the powerful Manchurian Global. In exchange for access and parts of her son’s gray matter, Shaw has received the backing of Manchurian, their vast wealth and their government agents who form sort of a shadow government.

The Manchurian Candidate is sly and funny more than it is a suspense-filled thriller. Eleanor Shaw talks a good game about “compassionate vigilance,” a humorous echoing political double speak that says nothing and is very familiar to listeners from speeches given by candidates for both our political parties. She’s also at her funniest when she is in the middle of an amoral ambition tornado, spinning furiously to improve her son’s position. For all the guess-who played with the movie (is Eleanor Hillary Clinton; is Raymond a witless George W?), the characters don’t seem quite like any one specific real-life political figure as much as they seem like all real-life political figures. A lot more talking about money and donations goes on than discussion about ideology and policy, the movie seems to say.

On the Denzel Washington race-against-the-clock side, the plot is more interesting than electrifying. We get the sense that the movie was more concerned with the style of political conspiracy than the substance of it.

For all that it is rightly lauded as a classic, the original The Manchurian Candidate was in large part over-the-top camp as well. Viewed though that lens, this latest version, while not as sharp- edged a thriller as advertised, is an entertaining and nuanced bit of political what-if-ery.

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