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'Manchurian Candidate' Good Escapist Fare (Right?)

Aug. 17, 2004 – Either you're into conspiracy theories or you're not. If you're not, the new remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," according to many reviewers, is pretty good escapist fare — the kind of film that will keep you on the edge of your seat 'til the closing credits but let you sleep like a baby when you get back home.
If you are convinced, however, that they are scheming to take over the world, then you may end up with a nightmare or two after seeing this film, although certainly nothing of the magnitude of the recurring ones that afflict the film's hero and one of his former fellow soldiers in the Gulf War.
Hardly any reviewer old enough to join AARP or smart enough to have taken a film history course avoids the instinctive urge to compare the movie to the 1962 original version of the same name.
Quick comparisons, then: The original is about members of an Army platoon in the Korean War who were brainwashed by the Communists. The current one is about soldiers in the Gulf War who have been programmed via computer-chip implants by a morally bankrupt big-business monolith that benefits from America's warmongering. Called Manchurian Global, it, of course, inspires the inevitable further comparisons to Halliburton et al.
In the '62 film, Laurence Harvey was the programmed killer; here it's Liev Schreiber. In the original, Frank Sinatra was his increasingly suspicious commanding officer; this time it's Denzel Washington. In the first, the programmed killer's ruthless, right-wing mother, the wife of a U.S. senator, was Angela Lansbury; in the new release the mother figure is Meryl Streep, but she's a senator herself (said by some, but not the actress, to be channeling Hillary).
The original film, directed by John Frankenhiemer, was set in the '50s just past the height of the fanatic McCarthyism fervor for ferreting out Communists wherever they might or might not be. The new version, directed by Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs") takes place after the Gulf War but, apparently, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Roger Ebert writes that "to compare Demme's version with Frankenheimer's is sort of irrelevant. That was then and this is now. Sinatra and Washington are both complete and self-contained and cannot be meaningfully compared. What we can say is that Demme has taken a story we thought we knew and, while making its outlines mostly recognizable, rotated it into another dimension of conspiracy. Are corporations really a threat to America's security? The rotten ones are."
The action part of the story has to do with a sinister plot in the midst of an American presidential campaign. The 1962 film actually was taken out of circulation for a while after the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963.
The release of the new version in the midst of – guess what? – an American presidential campaign can hardly be coincidence.
In his review Ebert also states: "Frank Rich writes in The New York Times that the movie is 'more partisan' than 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' but that requires a simpler and more translatable plot than the one I saw. Demme sticks his knife in everywhere, suggesting that the whole system and both parties have been compromised by the power of corporations."
Salon.com reviewer Stephanie Zacharek, however, faults the new film as being "a picture that purports to have a galvanizing, liberal-minded theme (big business is taking over our country and our lives), but is really just ploddingly pedestrian."
The Newark Star-Ledger's Stephen Whitty opines that it "still works as a scary thriller, and if this version no longer seems absurdly impossible – well, that's scarier still."
Similarly, Gabriel Shanks of Mixed Reviews writes that "even in Holly wood, the more things change (technology, the end of the Cold War, corporate influence), the more things stay the same (greed, avarice, powerlust)."
"The Critic Doctor," Peter Sobczynski, calls it "a smart contemporary film that, like 'The Bourne Supremacy' and the upcoming 'Collateral,' takes familiar genre conventions and gives them a reasonably intelligent spin."
You can test this theory for yourself, of course; both "Bourne" and "Collateral" also are playing on St. Thomas. Oddly – or perhaps inevitably – enough, Robert Ludlum, author of the bestselling Bourne novels on which those films are based, also wrote a book in 1995 called "Apocalypse Watch" that was about neo-Nazis plotting to take over the world and programming an American spy via a surgical implant to become an assassin. The catch was that the process was still in the testing stages, and all of the patients were dying within a dozen days of the surgery.
"The Manchurian Candidate" runs 2:10 and is rated R for violence and some language.
It opens on Thursday at Market Square East.

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