The Birthday Series – The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Droids Birthday Series 2004At a risk of repeating myself, I’m counting down to my birthday by reviewing one movie that was released on or around August 2nd for every year I’ve been a booze-addled degenerate. Have a gander at 2005.

The Manchurian Candidate Poster Remakes are a touchy subject to most film enthusiasts. With good reason, because nearly every remake is a cash grab based around marketing. Very rarely do the remakes live up to, or surpass the quality of the original. Some are offensively pointless, such as Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot remake of ‘Psycho’, and others, like Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’ or some bloke I’ve never heard of’s ‘Alfie’ are just offensive. What’s the point of remaking a successful film if all you don’t have something interesting to say with the material, as in David Cronenbergs ‘The Fly’ or John Carpenters ‘The Thing’? Maybe you want to expand the story, fleshing out the tale with interesting characters and entertaining action, as James Mangold did with ‘3:10 to Yuma’?

The Manchurian Candidate 4 Remakes can be successful, in the right hands. Unfortunately they very rarely are, but every now and then, such as in the case of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, director Jonathan Demme has something to say. Something a bit different than the original (and the book both films are based on).

Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is one of the surviving members of the famous ‘Lost Patrol’. In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, he and his unit came under heavy fire. Marco was knocked unconscious and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) bravely held off the enemy almost single handedly, then led them for many days through enemy territory to safety. Many years later, Shaw, the son of a political dynasty now led my his manipulative mother Senator Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep), is now a Senator and in line to become the Vice Presidential candidate in the upcoming election thanks to his immense popularity stemming from the Medal of Honour he received for his heroics. Marco, still in the military and heavily medicated, is resigned to speaking engagements to boy scouts where he repeats the story of the ‘Lost Patrol’. He is visited by Corporal Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), who tells him he keeps having the same dream over and over. He believes that the events of the ‘Lost Patrol’ aren’t true, and he keeps seeing nightmarish visions of the unit being brainwashed. Marco has had similar dreams, and when he stops taking his medication, he starts to question reality. What happened to his unit? And why?

The Manchurian Candidate 7 ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is a terrific paranoid thriller. I must admit, I’m drawn to these types of stories. Ones where a lone person knows the truth, or at least knows that the truth isn’t being told, and seeks to uncover it. Films like ‘All The Presidents Men’, ‘JFK’, and ‘The Conversation’ have me riveted to my seat.

Director Jonathan Demme has updated the story for modern times. The book, written by Richard Condon and the brilliant original film, directed by John Frankenheimer, involved those pesky Russians brainwashing the son of a prominent political family, for the intention of being an unwitting assassin. That story was very timely for the ‘Red under your bed’ era of Communism in America, but it doesn’t apply to current times. Although with recent events, maybe it does! Demme has replaced the Commies with an enemy just as diabolical. The far reaching international corporation, Manchurian Global, whose plan is to get a sleeper in the White House. Someone they can control, for their financial gain, in decisions of policy.

The Manchurian Candidate 3 Demme is an angry man. He veils little as he attacks multiple targets. The military, corporations, politics. All come under heavy fire. His contempt for his targets is palpable, as in an exchange between Shaw and one of Manchurian Globals suits. When Shaw states “If business where any better you are going to have more assets than the European Union.”, and the suit smugly replies “Don’t we already?” you can almost hear Demme’s teeth grinding. It’s a rare film that actually has something to say, let alone one made with such obvious passion for the message.

Denzel Washington is superb as Marco. He’s a shattered man, barely hanging on. He’s ignored the clawing doubt for so long, and his life has suffered because of it. But the visit from Melvin triggers the alarm, and he has to know the truth, whatever the cost. Washington plays him as a man on a knife edge. He’s at breaking point but his determination overrides everything else. Once his doubt, that he has managed to suppress for so long, is confirmed, his only choice is to find, and expose, the truth.

The Manchurian Candidate 8 Washington is supported by the excellent Liev Schreiber, who has been brainwashed his entire life by his monstrous mother. There is real pain in Schreibers performance, as he’s been turned into a robotic mouthpiece, and you can see him struggle to fight the years of manipulation. Meryl Streep is terrifying as the propaganda spouting Senator, who is willing to sacrifice her real son, for the chance of power. But the quality acting doesn’t stop there, with the excellent cast filled out by Jeffrey Wright, Jon Voight, Vera Farmiga, Bruno Ganz, Kimberly Elise, Ted Levine and Miguel Ferrer.

The film is photographed by the terrific cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who also shot Demme’s brilliant ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, as well as the genius that is ‘Ferris Buellers Day Off’. He’s one of the underrated cinematographers in Hollywood, and it’s always a pleasure to see his work, even if it’s not always a pleasure to watch his films (he shot ‘The Happening’).

The Manchurian Candidate 5 There is a moment I would call a miscalculation from Demme. Towards the end, he has Streep lean in to Schreiber, and it looks as though she’s leaning in for a kiss. And he cuts just before the lips meet. This is entirely unnecessary. For the length of the film, a growing unease builds around the mother-son relationship. We understand the nature of the mothers feelings towards her son. We don’t need it spelled out for us. It is much more effective as a disturbing subtext. It’s the one moment for me that Demme gets it wrong.

The remake of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is one of those rare films that can stand alongside the original. It’s one of the most paranoid of paranoid thrillers I’ve seen, and that, my friends, is a very good thing.


Thankyou all for attending my 2004 birthday. This was a very good year.


For Droids a jolly good fellow!

2009 – The Collector

2008 – The Midnight Meat Train

2007 – Hot Rod

2006 – Bon Cop Bad Cop

2005 – The Dukes of Hazzard


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About Judge Droid

In between refining my procrastination skills I talk a lot of shit about movies and such.

33 responses to “The Birthday Series – The Manchurian Candidate (2004)”

  1. Bartleby says :


    You finally catch a break with these August movies. I don’t quite find this up to the original, but that’s jsut because I think the original was ahead of its time, thematically and structurally as a film. Watching the composition of some of those shots and the way that entire ‘garden party’ at the start is filmed, well, it’s sort of groundbreaking for the time.

    There’s nothing groundbreaking in the remake–nor was it required– but I’ll say this; Washington and Streep and even Schreiber do good enough work to justify the remake. It was worth it to see their take on those roles.

    • Droid says :

      I think the original is a 4 chang film, so yes, this isn’t quite as good. But I disagree that it wasn’t required. Demme put his own stamp on the material and made it relelvant.

      • Bartleby says :

        No, what I meant Droid was in the pitching of the movie to the studios, making the remake groundbreaking wasn’t necessary, Im sure. Im not one of those people that thinks the movie has to top the original in order to be good.

        Demme did put his own stamp on it and distiguish it from the first movie, but I don’t think the work he did was groundbreaking to the medium of film in the sdame way that the first movie was.

  2. just pillow talk says :

    Yeah, this was a decent flick. Was it necessary to remake? No.

    The Thing and Thing from Another World are the only original and remake to stand proudly side by side as unequivocally excellent movies in their own right.

  3. Stuntcock Mike says :

    I prefer this to the original if I’m honest. It doesn’t take much for me to like Demme’s films(except Rachel Getting Married).

    I love the one badass moment in the film where Denzel is being questioned and he punches that douchecanoe right in the fucking shnoz.

  4. Continentalop says :

    Droid, I agree with Bartleby. The remake was unnecessary, and also missed the point what made the original great. It wasn’t the idea of brainwashing or the threat of political assassination that made the original a masterpiece, it was that it had the balls to say we have external and internal enemies, and they were dependent on each other.

    Demme and this movie reduces the threat to our country to the big, powerful multinational conglomerates- whoo. Haven’t heard the Military Industrial Complex paranoia for awhile. And while it may be true to a degree, one thing Demme seems to conveniently forget – we got a fucking bunch of religious fundamental terrorist trying to kill us, and they happened to have succeeded in killing 3,000 U.S. civilians in one day!

    The original Manchurian Candidate had the villains be the Reds – the Koreans, the Chinese and the Russians – because in truth they were trying to destroy us. But they also said that Joseph McCarthy and the ultra-far Right were also our enemies, sowing distrust and questioning people’s patriotism, and they were doing it purely political reasons. It also showed how the Red hunters were completely dependent on the commies for their power and had a symbiotic relationship with them. Without the Reds there could be no Red Scare, and without the Red Scare they were politically done.

    • Droid says :

      No. I disagree. Demme doesn’t make the conglomerates a threat in the sense of “national security” and whatnot. He’s commenting on the system, where politics and business cohabitate to such a disturbing degree that national policy can be influenced in favour of the money men. The politicians are bought and paid for by big business. Their “campaign contributions” aren’t because they believe in a politicians agenda. It’s so they can get enough of a foothold to influence said politicians agenda.

      The Communist theme of the original story would be irrelevent today. The film “missing the point” is not a valid critique because Demme isn’t actually trying to make the same point as the book.

      • Droid says :

        I should say “same point as the original movie” because I haven’t read the book. Probably should.

      • Continentalop says :

        Yes, Communist would be irrelevant. Terrorist on the other hand would be very relevant. And Demme treats them as just a passing comment.

        And Demme might be trying to make a different point than the book or film, but really the only point he is trying to make is unoriginal and uninspired. We’ve been hearing this point since the Parallax View (and much better back than as well). This is just JFK conspiracy all over again. Old and tired.

      • Droid says :

        I disagree. I thought his point wasn’t old or uninspired. In fact it felt timely and relevant. But since politics has long been that way, the point is consistently timely and relevant. Which is also the point. It’s why Demme sets the story (apart from the flashbacks) in “TODAY” and not in a specific time.

      • Continentalop says :

        So you’re saying post September 11th, America’s only threat is the influence of big business in the political system and not the idea that there are terrorist organizations out there trying to do harm to the American public?

        Demme’s versions is as much a simplification of America’s political problems as if you had a film that had only the terrorist and foreign dictators as our enemies. The original had balls and vision, this one is just partisan politics.

      • koutchboom says :

        Big Business is always a bigger threat than terrorist, do you fucking know how orgainized Wal Mart is?

      • Continentalop says :

        And I should add, really bad partisan politics. It doesn’t even state the big problem after 9-11, the one that got us in Iraq – how politicians exploited terrorism for their own political gain.

      • Jarv says :

        I’m staying right out of this one. I don’t know either well enough to comment.

      • Continentalop says :

        Jarv, that hasn’t stopped you before.

      • Jarv says :

        Cheeky bastard.

        And don’t think I didn’t notice that bit of bait above.

      • Continentalop says :

        Heh heh.

      • Droid says :

        Conti, where is it written in the bylaws of cinema that a film must encompass everything related to a subject? Because it addresses one threat, why must it address all? I, nor the film, never stated that the only threat to Uncle Sam were politics and corporations.

        Can a film not solely take issue with a corrupt political system? What are your objections? Do you think that what Demme is driving at in this film is incorrect? Why is this film simplistic where the original is complex? And where the hell am I?

        A bag of mixed lollies for anyone that gets that last reference

      • Continentalop says :

        Droid, when you make a movie called The Manchurian Candidate you’ll be judged against the original. And I found it severely lacking, especially when it can’t even understand the original’s concept of how politicians use crisis and actual threats to compromise our security for their advantage. If someone dares to do a remake of the Godfather, he better put out more than just an adequate suspense thriller.

        And that is what the new one is, a standard political suspense thriller – with admittedly good performances; the original was a masterpiece in suspense AND having a profound and important message, one that hadn’t been said 100 times in better ways. The original was an allegory of how those most stridently anti-something can very much profit from those they rail against, especially in politics. Plus the original also explored how politicians were using this new medium called “television” to influence their message and manipulate people. Both of those themes were much better, and better done, in the original.

        And once again what would have been a better message post September 11th – a warning about how big business can influence politicians, or a message about how all this anti-terrorism and tough guy talk about our enemies might just be politically convenient for whomever is saying it and they might be using terrorism to their political advantage?

        And was that line from that horrible Harry Potter fan fiction piece in the Baleback?

      • Droid says :

        Conti, I honestly think that you’re prejudiced against the remake because of the quality of the original. I can appreciate that, because the original is a brilliant film. But I think that’s clouding your judgement. The original is simply a suspense thriller. But it’s themes are fascinating. But Communism and media manipulation aren’t relevent. Commies are from a bygone era. Media manipulation is well known and has been the subject of many, many works. In the late 50’s/early 60’s that is relevent, brilliant and importantly, new.

        The remake takes on very different themes. I appreciate that. Why bother with one that simply covers the same ground? We would simply be asking, what’s the point? What Demme wants to say is not that terrorism can be convenient for politicians. That would be interesting also, but he’s railing against big business, and the political system in general. It’s a different agenda. In my opinion, no less worthy. Quite simply, that’s what he’s angry about.

        Please tell me what these 100 films are? I love these kinds of films (as if you couldn’t tell) and I’m interested to know what these films are so I can seek them out. I admit I haven’t seen The Parallax View, which I will be rectifying soon.

        Sorry, but you don’t get the bag of mixed lollies. It was actually from The Naked Gun, when Frank Drebin is walking the streets asking himself question after question about the case. At the end of the scene he ends up in the middle of nowhere and asks himself “where the hell am i?”

  5. Tom_Bando says :

    Oh to me-the remake was OK, on it’s own on the level of say Swat or the Italian Job. Decent entertainment, not badly made, no huge reason for it to exist.

    The orig. is a grade-A Classic and just Better. Henry Silva and Frankie in a chop-socky fight. Works for me.

  6. ThereWolf says :

    Must admit I didn’t bother with this remake, didn’t want to be disappointed – cos the original is so cool. Might have a go now though.

    Droid, see The Parallax View. It’s top, I think you’ll dig it…

    • Droid says :

      Yeah, definitely give it a go Wolf. Don’t get too hung up on comparing it to the original and you should enjoy it.

      I’ll be seeking out TPV soon, once this series is done and dusted.

  7. Hawaiian Organ Donor says :

    Holland in the finals, baby!!! All those South American pricks can go fuck themselves. Long live the Orange Tide!!!

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