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Review: Perfect time for 'Manchurian'

Remake doesn't match 1962 classic but entertains

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

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Liev Schreiber's performance as Raymond Shaw feels like one emotional note being played over and over.
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Bruno Ganz
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(CNN) -- The Jonathan Demme remake of John Frankenheimer's classic 1962 drama "The Manchurian Candidate" lacks some of the heart and soul of the original, but it still manages to be entertaining thanks in large part to the talents of Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber.

The original was set during the Cold War, in the period following the Korean conflict and not long after the Joseph McCarthy-induced paranoia regarding communist infiltration of the U.S. government that sent the nation into turmoil.

This time frame this time is present day, and the war in question is the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Instead of communism, the threat is a multinational company, Manchurian Global, which makes huge profits whenever America is at war.

The company's name is a clever way for the filmmakers to justify keeping the original title, as this story has nothing to do with Manchuria, where some of the first movie's action took place.

While the movie is careful not to affiliate the characters with any particular political party, the comparisons to today's political climate and the controversy over the U.S. government's ties to firms such as Halliburton may appear obvious to fans of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."

This is another advantage the original has over this remake -- communists made much better film bogymen than faceless corporations.

Washington steps into Frank Sinatra's shoes as the disturbed Maj. Bennett Marco.

Streep takes on the role of the massively ambitious Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw -- in the original, the character was a senator's wife, and Angela Lansbury received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for the role.

Schreiber plays her son, the aloof Raymond Shaw, first portrayed by Laurence Harvey.

The film opens with Marco speaking to a group of Boy Scouts about his experiences from the war and the exploits of one of the men under his command, Shaw, who won the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during an ambush in Kuwait.

Leaving the lecture hall, Marco is waylaid by another man from that unit, Cpl. Al Melvin, played by the always interesting Jeffrey Wright ("Basquiat").

Disheveled and nervous, Melvin tells Marco about his horrifying nightmares regarding that now-famous battle. His awful dreams and his daytime memories of that event don't add up.

Marco suggests that Melvin seek help with his problems, but fails to mention that he is plagued with the same disturbing nightmares.

Marco has become convinced that he and his entire squad were somehow hypnotized into believing Shaw deserved the Medal of Honor, when he knows in his gut the opposite is true.

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Denzel Washington as Maj. Bennett Marco embarks on a quest to confront Shaw.

No one believes Marco's story: He's been receiving medical treatment from military psychiatrists and taking medication for what has been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

But Marco knows the facts and his memories don't jibe, and he embarks on a quest to confront Shaw in an effort to unravel the mystery surrounding his deteriorating mental state.

En route to New York to find Shaw, Marco meets a young woman, Rose (Kimberly Elise), who befriends him and tells him that if needs a place to clean up before his meeting, he can use her cousin's apartment where Rose is temporarily staying. In the original, Rose was played by Janet Leigh.

Marco takes her up on her offer, and after his shower, discovers an odd bump underneath the skin beneath his shoulder. He cuts it out and finds a tiny implant.

Why on earth it's taken so long for him to notice this obvious object buried under his skin is a glaring plot goof best left ignored.

Marco then visits a rogue scientist, Richard Delp (Bruno Ganz), to ask about the device. How he knows Delp is not really made clear, and requires another leap of faith. The scientist confirms the high-tech device is extremely suspicious, but he's clueless as to its purpose.

Meanwhile, due to the backroom manipulations of his powerful mother, Raymond is now a vice presidential candidate in a heated election.

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Meryl Streep plays the massively ambitious Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, whose manipulations put her son in line to be a vice presidential candidate.

This is where the plot really jumps into high gear as the race to uncover the truth heats up before Raymond, a Manchurian Global puppet, is given the second highest office in the land.

Demme's strong direction keeps the action flowing, and as always, Streep and Washington deliver the goods.

Schreiber, in a way, has the hardest role, and his performance at times feels like one emotional note played again and again.

My only other major complaint is the sappy Hollywood ending slapped on in the final scene. It is totally unnecessary and the film would have been better served if it had been left on the cutting room floor.

Some film purists may be disappointed in this remake. In fact, Lansbury has gone on record saying she wishes it had never been made.

But for many, especially those unfamiliar with the 1962 version, this film delivers an interesting and exciting political potboiler that is being released at a perfect time.

"The Manchurian Candidate" opens nationwide on Friday, July 30, and is rated "R," with a running time of 135 minutes.


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