Of all the classics that I've seen, the original 'Manchurian candidate' probably remains the only one most in need of an update. Extremely dated by today's standards, its core setup of the conspiratorial and long winded attempt at infiltrating the upper echelons of power in the US is rooted too deeply in cold war hysteria, its lead performances uneven and its pacing jarringly rigid. The remake comes at opportune time; in an election year in the US, when paranoid anti-government hysteria is at an all time high and just when director Jonathan Demme is ready to be written off as a 'has been'.
This update changes the setting of the war that instigates the ride, moving it from Korea to the first Gulf war, turns the character of Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) into a vice presidential candidate and Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) into an African American soldier who may either be delusional or the only one onto something, yet retains the same frightening intensity and wit of the Eleanor Shaw character, memorably played by Angela Lansbury in the original and equally well by Meryl Streep this time round. It's hard to deny that Demme adroitly puts all of the good elements from John Frankenheimer's 1962 version to maximum use here, replacing the barely noticeable satire with hard-edged seriousness and white knuckle thrills and spills.
The plot is much the same. Raymond returns from war a hero after saving the lives of his ambushed squad. Many years later, being a decorated patriot and the son of the manipulative and scheming Senator Shaw (Streep) he becomes a viable candidate for vice presidency. Ben, who served with Raymond, now lives a life of upsetting dreams and war images and has memories, but no experience, of the heroics of Ray leading him to suspect an elaborate setup consisting of corporate manipulation, government cover-ups and brainwashing. Gone are the hokey references to McCarthyism, the uncertain surrealism of certain secondary characters and Frank Sinatra's mediocre, forgettable performance. The mystery of the girl on the train is enhanced by the shady Rosie (Kimberly Elise) and made more plausible while the aura of being constantly watched is given more credence in the digitally connected age.
The production values are exceptionally superior while the performances by the entire cast are spellbindingly good, especially by the surprisingly in-control Schreiber and the fabulously slimy Streep, already up for a Golden Globe and possibly an Oscar nomination. Washington remains undeniably and expectantly consistent yet again. For those who enjoyed the classic version, this is a very worthy attempt at redoing a still relevant political thriller with moments of jolting intensity and surprise twists that differ from the original significantly at key junctures, especially towards the end. For others unfamiliar with the importance of original, this should make for some truly sturdy viewing given how easily credible and real the mix of elements become by the end. - Faizan Rashid