Kuwait in 1991 and Captain Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) is leading a number of troops on a reconnaissance mission through territory invaded by Saddam Hussein. Abruptly, they are under attack, and the way the survivors remember it years later is that Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schrieber) single handedly saved their lives when Marco was knocked unconscious. Marco is telling this story at a talk to a group of boy scouts but when he goes to leave he is accosted by a familiar face (Jeffrey Wright): one of the soldiers from all those years ago. He doesn't look at all well, is babbling about nightmares and is clutching a pack of notes he has drawn up concerning what he believes is a conspiracy against the survivors. Now Raymond is running for Vice-President in the upcoming elections, what will the now-intrigued Marco uncover?
This remake of the cult classic thriller was scripted by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, and updated Richard Condon's tale from the late fifties-early sixties to the even more paranoid 2000s. Paranoia is the key here, as Marco is drawn into a web of deceit and discovers he is unwillingly close to the heart of it. After the terrorist attacks of the 11th of September 2001, you might expect the adaptation to concentrate on the threat of terrorism, or even, if you're feeling particularly persecuted by those on high, the insidious power of the government, but this Manchurian Candidate opts to expose the tentacles of big business that infiltrate society's top echelons, in a trendy anti-globalisation way. The enemy is not now China, or ruthless politicians, but the shadowy, American Manchurian Global Corporation.
As expected for a Jonathan Demme film, the cast are expertly chosen, headed by a unusual role for Washington. Normally, he's the man in control even if events are against him, but here his accustomed confidence is undermined by everyone around him, making his performance uncharacteristically vulnerable and undeniably effective. Congressman Schreiber, as the candidate, is an unsympathetic man dominated by his mother, Eleanor (Meryl Streep), and cares little for the citizens he purports to represent. As for Eleanor, she is the member of an influential American family and in politics herself, a smarmy stateswoman who makes no bones about manipulating those weaker souls around her - Streep has a field day.
Soon Marco is suffering the nightmares, and suffering all the more when he realises that they may not simply be bad dreams but actual memories hidden by advanced brainwashing technology. But how can he prove his paranoia is justified when it makes him sound like a lunatic, and a dangerous one at that. He doesn't help his case by managing to secure a meeting with Raymond, who is also growing increasingly troubled, which ends badly when Marco wrestles Raymond onto the table top and takes a bite out of his shoulder, leading to his arrest. And the reason he has done this? Earlier, in the flat of his new lady friend (the suspiciously overfriendly Kimberly Elise), he has discovered an implant buried beneath the skin of his shoulder. And Raymond has one too.
Unfortunately it's never particularly clear what these implants do apart from remotely control their carriers - both men act exactly the same after losing them; in fact the technology is fuzzily presented. There's a streamlining of the plot of the original, but the convoluted storyline seems more muted and ominous than hysterical, which goes some way to making it believable, but also denies the film its shock value. Perhaps we are so used to hearing conspiracy theories and of the powers that be having only their own interests paramount that invented schemes have lost their novelty - there's certainly no satirical bite here. Nevertheless, this Manchurian Candidate is absorbing enough even if its machinations are more mechanical than Machiavellian, and the emotional core is dulled by cynicism in comparison with the sixties version. Music by Rachel Portman and Wyclef Jean. Watch for plentiful cameos from the likes of Roger Corman, Fab Five Freddy and Walter Mosley.
American director with a exploitation beginnings who carved out a successful Hollywood career as a caring exponent of a variety of characters. Worked in the early 70s as a writer on films like Black Mama, White Mama before directing his first picture for producer Roger Corman, the women-in-prison gem Caged Heat. Demme's mainstream debut was the 1977 CB drama Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band), which were followed by such great films as the thriller Last Embrace, tenderhearted biopic Melvin and Howard, wartime drama Swing Shift, classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and black comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob.
Demme's Thomas Harris adaptation The Silence of the Lambs was one of 1991's most successful films, making Hannibal Lecter a household name, while the worthy AIDS drama Philadelphia was equally popular. Since then, Demme has floundered somewhat - Beloved and The Truth About Charlie were critical and commercial failures, although 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a box office hit. Rachel Getting Married also has its fans, though Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash was not a great one to go out on. He was also an advocate of the documentary form, especially music: his final release was a Justin Timberlake concert.