Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) was a squad leader during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. He and Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) reported that they came under heavy fire, leaving Marco unconscious and Shaw to save most of the squad. In present day, Shaw’s Congressional Medal of Honor has blossomed into a potential candidacy for Vice President of the United States, while Marco’s career has flailed down to giving lectures about duty in the Army. Everything changes when another survivor from his squad forces Marco to face his dreams, a recurring nightmare where the attack never happened and Shaw is a cold-blooded killer.
The Manchurian Candidate (a remake of the earlier film of the same name) is a conspiracy thriller that is well aware of itself and what others viewers expect from it, but falls victim to the usual conventions instead of doing anything original. In truth, the elements of the mystery are so transparent that the only question is how many people will die before the secret is out. How many twists can there be when there are only a few parts and you’ve seen these actors playing them all before?
The script itself seems to be where much of laziness begins. Take for example the cheap dialogue trick where the characters play audience and waste screen time presenting their own wild theories so the audience can cross those bits off the upcoming twist list. Finding surveillance cameras in vents because someone left the red power-on indicator light visible, characters that don?t think to remove a drain trap to recover something important dropped in a sink, and the most do-nothing secret organization bent on profiting from controlling the world all contribute to a ho-hum conclusion that neither clarifies nor satisfies.
Once again, Denzel Washington finds himself on the wrong side of a not-so-crazy conspiracy theory; he?s become so comfortable in the role of a man against the world but still trying to save it that it?s difficult to tell them apart anymore (which is just one more reason why his villainous turn in Training Day deserved its Oscar recognition). Liev Schreiber (as Raymond Shaw) actually has the meatiest role, but because he isn’t the film’s headlining act his part doesn’t get the attention it could have. Meryl Streep as Eleanor Shaw gets plenty of opportunities to show her stuff, but in the end it becomes harder and harder to accept her as a congresswoman as smart and capable as the story should have demanded. Dean Stockwell gets nothing to do and Jon Voight’s brief appearance provides one of the few enjoyable twists before being cut too short to really matter.
Smart people and cold killers are the meat and potatoes of a political thriller like this, and with an opportunity to ride the coattails of the upcoming presidential election, the production seems a bit rushed to take advantage of that instead of make a good film. Fortunately, it may not be too late for some of you; if you’re reading this now, you can resist your brainwash programming for weak thrillers and go see The Bourne Supremacy instead.
(a one skull recommendation out of four)