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Another remake! What a surprise! This time, they have remade a classic film of 1962, The Manchurian Candidate. The original, which is #65 on the IMDB all-time best movie list, starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury, and was directed by John Frankenheimer. I rented it recently and it is so good that one wonders why bother remaking it. But such thoughts never stopped anyone. The new version follows the same basic storyline as the original although there are some big changes. A squad of American soldiers in Iraq in 1991 (Korea in the 1962 version) is kidnapped, brainwashed and then returned to the battlefield. Among the brainwashed soldiers are Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), son of a US Senator (Meryl Streep), and his Captain, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington). These three roles were originally played by Harvey, Lansbury and Sinatra, respectively. Shaw is praised as a hero for saving his platoon. He uses his heroic persona and his family connections to run first for congress and then for Vice President of the United States. Meanwhile, Marco and the rest of the platoon are going psycho because they are having nightmares about the brainwashing. (WARNING!!! I am about to discuss the plot differences, including the endings, of both movies).
The setup for both movies is very similar but then the plots actually diverge significantly. In the original, it was the Communists who had brainwashed the soldiers to further their nefarious plans. In the new Manchurian Candidate, it is a multi-national corporation who has brainwashed the soldiers to further their nefarious plans. But the huge difference between the two movies is that in the 1962 version only Shaw is programmed to follow the bad-guys' orders, while Marco tries to figure out what's happening and in the end tries to save Shaw. In the new film, both soldiers are programmed to take orders and Marco becomes the trigger man in the final climactic scene. The original plot was quite simple. Shaw's overbearing, ambitious and treasonous mother gets her husband nominated for Vice-President. Then Shaw is supposed to kill the President so his step-father can move up. But after Marco intervenes, Shaw kills his step-father and mother instead and then kills himself. In the new version, Shaw himself is nominated for Vice President, Marco kills him and his mother, then Marco tries but fails to kill himself. I'm leaving out all the subplots but the original is much cleaner and allows Marco to be vindicated and have a chance for a future while Shaw has paid for killing the bad guys. In the new version, Marco is the killer and he gets away with it. The problem is that because of the star power of Denzel Washington, they decided to merge most of the two characters from the original into one even though it creates a plot that makes no sense.
You may have already guessed that I liked the original version of The Manchurian Candidate much better than the new version. It's hard to be unbiased in these comparisons but the added complexities of the new film only serve to blur and confuse the original plot-line. The original is lean and mean. It sets up the characters much better. And it handles the nightmares and flashbacks much better. Much as I love Denzel Washington, I have to say that Frank Sinatra was amazing as the anguished and confused Marco. Harvey and Schreiber are both good playing the automaton Shaw. The real scene-eating role is Shaw's mother, played with reckless abandon by Angela Lansbury. Meryl Streep adds a lot of layers to the role and is the one big improvement of the new version over the old. Another big change is updating the love interest played by Janet Leigh in the original into an FBI agent (Kimberly Elise) trying to prevent the plot in the new movie.
This film is by Jonathan Demme who has directed some really good movies, among them, Swing Shift, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia. But I think he lost his way here. I guess he thought the original was dated and didn't have enough action. As a result, he has turned a scary psychological thriller into an average Hollywood action movie. The Manchurian Candidate is pretty much gone from the theatres now. So when you go to rent it, make sure you get the original. Leave the new one on the shelf.