The 1962 John Frankenheimer original was made as the Cold War, um, heated up its themes of brainwashed soldiers acting as "sleeper agents" within the United States tapped into the intense anti-Communist sentiment of its day. Starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate became a lightning rod for American political debate and was pulled from circulation for many years following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Although the political themes remain in this update, it's hard to imagine it having a similar impact. It's only superficially updated from George Axelrod's original screenplay (adapted from the book by Richard Condon), this time with Denzel Washington in Sinatra's role as Ben Marco, a shell-shocked soldier whose memories of time served in Kuwait during the first Gulf War seem incongruous to the recurring nightmares he has. Slowly he begins to realise his own memories of glory may not be real. Perhaps his fellow soldier, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), wasn't the saviour he remembers; more urgency is added to his quest for the truth in this update because Raymond Shaw is vying for the vice presidency in the upcoming election. His political career is being driven by his mother (Meryl Streep), a conniving woman whose involvement in this mystery is deeper than it appears.
Efforts have been made to make this Manchurian Candidate more relevant, where corporations have replaced Communists and terrorism stands in for the Cold War. Yet the idea that corporations may be evil and their shareholders self-interested hardly seems radical. Even the idea of a puppet gaining control of the White House seems tame as if there were other options.
The Manchurian Candidate, as a thriller, is a smooth running engine; it motors through its paces with a sense of verve, driven by excellent performances all around (particularly Streep, who has the unenviable position of taking on Lansbury's landmark performance in the original). Yet having remade almost note for note one of the most intense political thrillers of all time, this version seems strangely toothless. Hardly the political "statement" of the summer that honour has been taken by documentarians like Michael Moore, whose indictments of corporate culture are much more biting than this. (Paramount)