Film Review: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Reserved seats ahead of time at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for the 7pm show on Saturday. This is the first time I’ve been to a movei there in a while, and things had changed a little bit. The old box office (the one that served just the main theatre, not the Chinese 6 on the same block) is gone, leaving the main courtyard wide open, so that tourists can more easily browse the famous footprints in concrete. All ticket purchases are made at a box office on the sidewalk to the right of the theatre. The automatic machines that spit out pre-reserved seats are visible nearby but not prominently displayed, so we almost ended up waiting in line at the box office anyway. Unlike the ArcLight, there is no reserved seating, so reservations only guaranteed you a ticket, not a good seat if you don’t arrive early.

The interior of the theatre is as magnificent as I remembered. In terms of screen size, the Chinese is not match for the Cinerama Dome (or a handful of other large-screen theatres around town), but it has absolutely the most beatuful decor of any screening venue. And it’s no slouch in the terms of the presentation of the movie either. The stereo surround sound effects were fantastic, helping put the audience inside the head of the film’s lead character Captain Ben Marco (Denzel Washington).

Usually, we think of great sound in terms of lots of explosions and blaring music (a la STAR WARS), but MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE uses sound to suggest the distorted perspective of a character who doesn’t trust his own memories and therefore has reason to doubt his own mental functioning. The soundytrack enhances our feeling for his mental state (mostly early in the film) with muffled wailing guitars seeping in from other rooms and screeching animals in the background.

One recommendation: these sounds tend to come out of the channels for the back side speakers, while most of the dialogue (logically enough) comes from the screen. If you sit too far back in the theatre, there’s a chance that the background noises could interfere with your understanding of what characters are saying, especially when Bruno Ganz (as Marco’s helpful friend) shows up. Ganza (previously seen in Werner Herzog’s remake of NOSFERATU and in another paranoid sci-fi conspiracy thriller THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL) has a European accent that’s difficult to understand with all the echoing sound effects layer in the background.

The film itself is a solid thriller. Considering what a masterpiece the 1962 original is, it’s quite impressive that this┬áremake holds up on its own at all; nevertheless, one has to admit that it’s no match for its famous predecessor. There are a few new twists so that the plot is not completely predictable, and the story has been updated with elements that are relevant for today’s audience: Marco and Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) are veterans of the first Gulf War, not the Korea conflict; and the evil entity responsible for brainwashing them is not China but a multi-national corporation called Manchurian (thus justifying the continued use of the original title).

Much of the film is intense and thriller, but occasionally it bogs down. And the new plot twists, although they make story sense, undermine the drama of the original, which was powerful, depressing, and yet completely satisfying, with a final reel victory won at great cost — a tragic but effective conclusion. The new version shifts some of the lead characters’ actions around: Raymond Shaw is no longer the programmed assassin but the Manchuian Candidate (i.e., the sleeper in the White House who will follow the Manchurian Corporation’s bidding). This partly undermines the final reel act of heroism and sacrifice seen in the original. It’s still there, in a way, but de-emphasized in an attempt to provide a more uplifting ending. Unfortunately, this new tag feels a bit forced and false–added on for the benefit of multiplex audiences who want to feel good when they leave the theatre. This might have been somewhat forgivable if the new ending had achieved its aims, but it really doesn’t. It’s not so much a feel-good fade-out as a “don’t feel so bad” fade out–vague and inconclusive, rather than wrenching as in the original.

Still, there aren’t many films as good as the first MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, so it’s no great insult to say that the remake is slightly inferior. The new film has many stregtths, including the nerve to address contemporary political issues without lapsing into the jingoist, psuedo-patriotic tone too common today. Director Jonathan Deeme’s new thriller may not be a new classic, but it is one of the better films available this summer.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.