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Jonathan Demme’s choice of material has been a little bizarre as of late. His remake of the strangely winsome yet slightly edgy Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant vehicle Charade into the bland and leaden The Truth About Charlie was such a full-blown disaster that his choice to return to the remake well and update John Frankenheimer’s chillingly effective cold-war classic, The Manchurian Candidate, can almost be considered self-flagellatory.
It’s obvious what drew Demme to the material: the thriller — which stars Denzel Washington as a Gulf War vet who uncovers a sinister corporate conspiracy to control the U.S. government — is suffused with a disquieting, alarming sense of paranoia. It creeps you out in much the same way as Demme’s 1991 Oscar-winner Silence of the Lambs. But the movie is profoundly flawed in its attempt to recast the central enemy as a global corporate enterprise, as well as in its choice to replace good old-fashioned brainwashing techniques with mind-controlling computer chip implants. The implants create a gaping plot hole so vast, it pretty much swallows the film’s final minutes. Manchurian Candidate fizzles out like an Alka-Seltzer releasing its last carbonated bubble — we never even make it to the middle of our seat, let alone the edge.
Thankfully, the film boasts superlative, studied performances by Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, and especially Meryl Streep, who plays an intensely powerful senator with an unusually strong devotion to her only son. Manchurian Candidate reminds us yet again of what a natural phenomenon Streep is. In her hands, even the simple act of chewing ice becomes a character-defining moment. She is reason enough to overlook this Candidate‘s otherwise faulty and inconsistent platform.