“I started with nightmares. Rumors and conjecture? That’s a giant leap forward.”
When the original version of The Manchurian Candidate was made in the 60s, it was built on espionage and intrigue and undercover spy games, but in a quaint, Cold War way, it was a lot more out in the open. Sure, everyone was trying to be covert, but it was a time, and a movie, where the sides were very easily identifiable. And even while their actions and tactics may have been top secret, their goals were right there in the open. So when someone (for no apparent that reason I can see) decided to remake The Manchurian Candidate, they needed to replace the Cold War with something a little more relevant to the new millennium. And it’s those attempts at modernisation that lead to the best and worst parts of the 2004 retelling.
After single handedly saving his unit from an ambush attack in Iraq, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) is given a Congressional Medal of Honor. Welcomed home a hero, his overbearing Senator mother (Meryl Streep as Eleanor) pulls stings to make him a vice presidential candidate. At the same time, Shaw’s commanding officer from the Iraq incident, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) starts to have a recurring dream. A dream in which him and his platoon are being brain washed and hypnotised, a dream in which Shaw kills an officer who has since been remembered as a casualty of the ambush.
The more Marco has the dream, the more he starts to think it’s not a dream, and that the ambush is the figment of his imagination. His slow realisation leads to possibly the weakest part of this version of the movie compared to the original. The scene in which the memory of the brainwashing is compared to the reality of it in the 60s Candidate is nothing less than amazing. Technically, it’s just simple, but very clever editing. Here, it’s all flash and no substance. Which kind of sums up most of this more modern adaptation.
Denzel Washington can act the shit out of anything. He’s always compelling and can make any story or character watchable. The only problem here is, I don’t see it is Ben Marco’s story. I see it as Raymond Shaw’s. The original had Frank Sinatra in the Marco role, a similar ball of charisma, albeit without the acting chops of Washington. But I felt like the Sinatra version used his character more to tell the story of the Shaw character. In 2004, they clearly set out to make a DENZEL WASHINGTON movie, with every other character there to serve him.
This version of The Manchurian Candidate might hold the honor of having the worst, clunkiest editing I have ever seen in a big budget, big studio movie. The opening titles cycles through three or four different songs, set to a montage of Shaw and Marco’s unit playing cards in their armored vehicle before the ambush. But it doesn’t move from song to song in a clever or organic way. It just fades the music and footage, then fades back into basically the same footage with a new song. Then does it one or two more time, for no apparent reason.
Then, throughout the movie, it fades in and out of scenes so lazily, it’s like a made for TV movie with gaps left in for commercial breaks. Big, flashy editing can sometimes be impressive in its audaciousness or originality. Super subtle editing is impressive in the way that you don’t even notice it. This is somewhere in the middle. The shitty, lazy middle.
In all of its attempts to modernise itself, The Manchurian Candidate 2004 edition goes darker and more cynical. Story wise, I liked it. And while I can see how that approach worked enough on paper to get it funded and get a pretty great cast onboard. The end result though, never really lives up to that potential.