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I was a bit hesitant and conflicted about watching Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candaidate. I am not a huge fan of remakes, especially when the source of the remake is one of if not the best political thriller in the past fifty years. John Frankenheimer’s classic from 1962 is a powerhouse of a film, containing top performances from Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, and is both suspenseful and compelling while building to its shattering climax. On the other hand, the remake is directed by a man who knows his way around a thriller and has a cast that many other directors would absolutely kill for. After watching the film I can confidently say that you shouldn’t make the same mistake I did in putting off watching it any longer than you have to.

Manchurian Candidate, The
Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) has been experiencing a singular dream for several years that dates back to an incident during The Gulf War. He and his men, including Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), were lost for three days after a night time ambush in which Marco was knocked unconscious and Shaw received the Congressional Medal of Honour and a political springboard for saving the lives of most the men in his unit. As Marco begins to investigate and question whether the incident occurred as he remembers it or as it happened in his dreams, he unravels an alarming conspiracy involving high ranking government officials and members of a powerful corporation known as Manchurian Global. As the United States presidential election draws near and Raymond Shaw becomes poised to become the next vice president, Marco has little time to convince Shaw of the plot and keep the conspirators from attaining their goals.

Even though both films are based on the novel by Richard Condon, the remake thankfully offers a different take on the material so that watching it doesn’t feel tired while still holding to the basic premise it shares with the original. While many of these changes would ruin the new film if I disclosed them, I can tell you the most obvious of these differences is the previous all encompassing villain of the film, communism, being replaced in the remake by a global, power hungry corporation. It may have been a necessary evil in making the change, since communism is no longer the evil empire it once was, but for the most part it works surprisingly well for the new film. In this mass media world of 2004 filled with multinational conglomerates vying for control and political pundits hoping to capture the next big sound bite, it doesn’t take much to suspend disbelief enough to get wrapped up in the movie’s high tension games of cat and mouse or the political intrigue that takes place behind press rooms and convention hall curtains. As for the other differences with the story the alternatives in this film work equally well, although one major subplot from the original film concerning a long ago love is sadly underused.

Manchurian Candidate, The
Much of the credit for offering a fresh approach to the material is deservedly given to Demme and screenwriters Daniel Payne and Dean Georgaris, but the actors also infuse the film with characters that stand on their own with subtle differences when compared to their predecessors. Denzel Washington is excellent as the confused Ben Marco, a decent man struggling to cope with a conspiracy bigger than himself, and the fear that he may slowly be losing his grip on reality. Meryl Streep, seemingly channelling a certain former First Lady, is deliciously manipulative as a flag waving, senior senator and Raymond’s mother Eleanor Shaw. In a star making performance, Liev Schreiber excels as the title character who wishes to do right while in conflict with the external forces controlling him. The rest of the supporting cast, including such actors as Jon Voight and Kimberly Elise, round out the outstanding ensemble performance and help to elevate the film above what could have easily become an average, run-of-the-mill thriller.

While overall an excellent film, I did find fault with a couple aspects of the story. The first, being like those ever growing roller coasters it takes some time to get to where it is going, but all the while it ratchets up the tension until finally letting loose and not letting up until after its climax. Secondly, I found the film’s aforementioned denouement to be a bit contrived and too convenient for all that had preceded it, but others might find it to be a perfect fit.

I still view Frankenheimer’s film as the definitive version of The Manchurian Candidate, but this is easily Jonathan Demme’s best film since Philadelphia and best thriller next to The Silence of the Lambs; one that a less distinguished director would gladly call their best work. Offering up a new take on a tried and true original, this 2004 version stands on its own as a suspenseful and frightening vision.

Manchurian Candidate, The
Video
Paramount Home Entertainment has presented The Manchurian Candidate in an anamorphic widescreen transfer at the film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 for its debut on DVD. While during some of the wider shots it contains compression artefacts or grain and the image becomes a bit soft around the edges, for the most part the transfer is well done with vibrant colours and a sharp, clear image. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto is excellent and equal to some of his best efforts such as The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Silence of the Lambs.

Audio
The Manchurian Candidate contains Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in both English and French with optional subtitles in English and Spanish. The audio presentation for the DVD is near reference quality featuring clear dialogue from the centre channel and an immersive sound field from all other speakers. Although not an action oriented mix, the film’s sound design deftly emulates the overload of information from background noise such as newscasts and crowds of people that the characters themselves must be sensing at all times during the film; the best examples of which can be heard during any of the convention scenes in the film. The score by Rachel Portman featuring songs by Wyclef Jean is excellent and heightens the tension in the film at just the right moments.

Manchurian Candidate, The
Extras
Paramount Home Entertainment has supplied the DVD with some decent extras including director and screenwriter audio commentary, a few featurettes, deleted scenes and outtakes housed on a single disc along with the film itself.

The audio commentary with director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Daniel Payne is the best feature found on the disc.  While at times the track is very clinical, Demme and Payne offer their particular insights into the making of the film and crafting the screenplay.  While both are very observant of the original film and the differences between it and this new take on the novel by Richard Condon, Payne in particular discusses points in the screenplay where he most wanted to not emulate the previous film.

Next is the fourteen minute featurette, ‘The Enemy Within: Inside The Manchurian Candidate’, which is a fairly standard making-of piece featuring Demme, Payne and the principle actors from the film as well as producer Tina Sinatra who discusses the idea of remaking the film and speaking with her father concerning a possible remake.  The next featurette, the twelve minute ‘The Cast of The Manchurian Candidate’, again features Demme, Payne and the principle cast who discuss casting the film and the main characters.

The disc features nine minutes of deleted scenes with optional director commentary that add a bit of depth to some of the characters, but were probably wisely cut for pacing purposes.  Also included are two uncut news interviews performed for the film featuring Meryl Streep that are segmented into the film at various points.  A similar feature, ‘Political Pundits’, is also presented here uncut and features a round table discussion on the 2004 election and the state of American politics.  As an added bonus, both the Streep outtakes and the pundits’ discussion contain optional director commentary.

The rest of the extras on the disc are rounded out with trailers for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Without A Paddle, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Team America and The Stepford Wives and may be accessed from the special features menu or viewed before the main menu on the DVD.  Unfortunately, the film’s own trailer is absent from the disc for no apparent reason.

Manchurian Candidate, The
Overall
The Manchurian Candidate is a taut and well crafted thriller from director Jonathan Demme that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats even if they have seen the 1962 original as it offers up a few new twists to Richard Condon’s story and great performances from the principle cast. Paramount’s DVD presentation contains a good transfer, excellent sound and nice batch of extras that fans should enjoy for the film’s debut to the format. Overall, this new The Manchurian Candidate is more than a worthy successor to Frankenheimer's classic and gets my vote as being one DVD that I can easily recommend to anyone looking for an intelligent and suspenseful film experience.


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