When Akira Kurosawa made Throne of Blood, he didn't deny that his thoroughly compelling film was influenced by Shakespeare's Macbeth. A generation later he did it again, turning King Lear into his towering Ran.
But in each case Kurosawa came up with his own title, which would have been a good lesson for Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs), whose new movie, The Manchurian Candidate, shares the name and the general plot of John Frankenheimer's landmark 1962 thriller, which was based on a novel by Richard Condon. It shares little else, though, and it stops making sense about a third of the way through, when the plausible (if unlikely) premise of the original bleeds into an over-plotted mess of weird science and insipid politics that you can hear any night of the week from a bevy of shrieking cable TV news pundits caught in the crossfire.
In Frankenheimer's film, a group of American soldiers, taken prisoner in the Korean War, undergo brainwashing by a gallery of multi-cultural Communists who program them to respond to subversive post-hypnotic commands when they return home. The leader of this pack is Chinese, hence the logic of the title.
In Demme's film, the title refers to a greedy hegemonic corporation called Manchurian Global, a sinister Halliburton clone that profits from America's wars and wants to place a president in the White House. But what American company would choose a name like "Manchurian Global"? They might as well just call themselves "Commie-Loving Multi-National Inc." and plead nolo contendre to treason. This is more than just a cheap way to steal a title. It's a stupid way. The solution, of course, is simple: Call the movie something else.
The new Manchurian Candidate, contemporized in both setting and paranoia, opens in the Kuwaiti desert in 1991, just before the start of the Gulf War. We meet the soldiers, led by Capt. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), slightly bored as they wait for Bush and Hussein to complete their pre-war danse macabre. Suddenly, there's a firefight, and when it ends, young Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) has single-handedly saved his buddies' lives.
Cut to Washington, D.C., in the present, where Marco suffers from post-traumatic stress and a recurring, unchanging dream about what really happened that night, and where Shaw, now a congressman and war hero, is a rising political star with a dogma of "compassionate vigilance." He soon becomes a (much too young) vice presidential nominee when his formidable mother, Sen. Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), crashes her party's smoke-free back room and gets the men to dump their VP choice, a stately old liberal senator (Jon Voight) who believes in international cooperation and rapprochement with our detractors.
Marco's repressed memories gradually become clearer to him, especially after he digs a small metal implant out of his back. ("These are only theoretical," says an astonished old scientist friend.) Meanwhile, Shaw begins to have his own flashes of self-recognition, but he's too weak -- and too much under his mother's skirt -- to set things right.
When the first Manchurian Candidate appeared 40 years ago, we didn't live in an über-mediated society, and things like secret brainwashing and Commie plots didn't seem too far-fetched. (The military, in fact, spent half of the '50s investigating the matter.) Nowadays we know what dress the president's paramour wore when he ejaculated on it. So it's a little unlikely that an evil corporation could do the things that Manchurian Global pulls off. Where Frankenheimer's film was scientifically grounded, Demme's sci-fi retelling numbs its politics at a time when his fictional enemy is vividly real on the evening news.
Here and there on the fringes -- in a TV newscast about the U.S. invading Guinea (for making weapons), or when a comedian jokes about Manchurian Global when we know it's true -- Demme stumbles onto touches of subtlety and context. The brainwashing sequence, integral to the first film, becomes a spotty throwaway in this one, which on the whole is badly directed by an overheated (and overrated) filmmaker who always tends to sensationalize his psychologies.
Demme wants his racing film to be intense and intimate, so he jams the camera in his actors' faces and underscores some extraordinary acting with incidental music and noise. Marco's anxiety and confusion is like a leaky faucet with a gasket that's trying desperately not to give way, and in the scene where he finally recalls what happened, Washington is heartbreaking, even though Demme films him in virtual darkness and points the camera at the side of his head. Schreiber, too, is steely and vivid as a young man who can't begin to grasp the source of his inner torment.
For those of us who remember the first Manchurian, Demme faced the insurmountable task of recasting two indelible villains: Angela Lansbury as the mondo-ambitious Oedipal-wreck of a mother; and Khigh Dhiegh, the culturally hybrid actor (and Taoist author) as the placid Chinese ringmaster during the brainwashing sessions. Demme doesn't try to replace Dhiegh. But in the Lansbury role, Streep -- who showers her son with baby kisses and calls him "Mr. Grumpy" -- is distractingly flat, except for a final flash of tender, erotic incest. As a better Senatrix Shaw, I kept imagining the pursed voice and darting eyes of Jane Fonda, whose return to cinema at least might have forced a raison d'etre upon another overproduced Hollywood waste of time.