This sleek and supple thriller features powerhouse performances but never quite persuades us that it has anything to add to the cold war classic starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury.
As in the first film, the focus is on soldier Ben Marco (Denzel Washington in the Frank Sinatra role), whose nightmares about his time in combat (now the Persian Gulf war) are beginning to seem more real to him than what he thought of as his memories.
Marco knows the story of the incident that got him his medal. Everyone knows the story. Everyone who was there even uses the same words to tell the story and especially to describe Raymond Shaw (Liev Shreiber in the Laurence Harvey role), the soldier who got the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in fighting the enemy while Marco was incapacitated. Marco meets up with a member of the platoon who is badly damaged. Is it post-traumatic stress, Gulf War syndrome, or is it his brain fighting back from something it has been programmed to believe? “I remember it perfectly,” he says, “I just don’t remember doing it.” Or, “as if I know what will happen but never actually get to the point where it does happen.”
Meanwhile, Shaw is struggling as well. The recognition he got as a war hero helped him be elected to Congress and he is now a contender for the vice-presidential candidacy of one of the major parties (not named). His mother Eleanor (Meryl Streep in the Angela Lansbury role), a Senator, is pushing him very hard. He resents it, but cannot seem to resist. No one can resist her. In one short meeting, brilliantly acted by Streep, the Senator purrs, seduces, and finally brutalizes a group of politicos into abandoning their choice for the VP spot, Senator Thomas Jordan (Jon Voight) and taking Raymond instead.
But Marco is increasingly troubled. Shaw is at first glad to see him again, then sympathetic, then skeptical. What Marco is suggesting seems absurd, impossible. But in his heart, Shaw knows that it might explain everything.
Demme ably creates a believably creepy atmosphere and there are some great visual effects, especially Shaw’s hotel room, which includes an infinitely refractive illusion in a picture that hangs over the bed. Streep is mesmerizing. But some of it gets overheated, especially a mad scientist who of course has an English accent and is scrupulously polite and a murder assignment that makes no sense as a matter of logistics. And the big reveal about the bad guys does not have the same punch of the original; it is not as successful at tapping into the fears of the moment.
Parents should know that the movie is a thriller with intense and graphic violence including many murders (gunshot, strangling, drowning) and injuries. Characters drink, smoke, and use drugs. There is some very strong language. A mother-son kiss is briefly played for a mild indicator of emotional incest. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of strong, intelligent, loyal, and capable women and minorities.
Families who see this movie should compare it to the original and talk about how each was a reflection of its times. Marco says, “I thought I knew who the enemy was.” Who was the enemy? What does the choice of bad guy tell us? Is an “emotionally compromised past” a “terrible burden” from which someone must be freed?
Families who see this movie will enjoy seeing the original The Manchurian Candidate as well as paranoia classics Three Days of the Condor, Conspiracy Theory, and The Parallax View.