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Conspiracy Weary

Hollywood nominates another remake with "The Manchurian Candidate."

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The candidate in question is Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), winner of the Medal of Honor for bravery in the Gulf War and vice-presidential timber in the election of 2008, the year in which the movie is set. But Shaw's old platoon leader, Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), is plagued by nightmares and begins to wonder whether Shaw's heroics really happened, or if he is merely in the grip of an artificially induced memory. With the fate of the nation in the balance, he concludes that both he and Shaw were captured and brainwashed during the war, and that they have been programmed to do the bidding of a shadowy force intent on taking the White House. Naturally, Marco is dismissed as a loon.

Frankenheimer's masterpiece relied on American commie paranoia. Unfortunately for Demme, that powerful spook is no longer available, and so he and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris have to cobble together another villain to haunt their story. What they come up with is Manchurian Global, a multinational corporation that is like Enron, Halliburton and Bristol-Myers Squibb all rolled into one.

As alarming as these capitalist entities may be, they are small beer compared to Stalin and Mao. We may not like them, but they don't scare most of us stiff. Demme's inability to link the farfetched plot to deep and prevalent fears rules out the crazy intensity of the 1962 version, whose release date coincided with the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What we're left with is a standard-issue thriller, with Washington's Marco sounding the voice in the wilderness as he races from plot point to plot point. Washington brings a compelling jitteriness to the role, drawing us in and making us cheer when he lashes out at the bureaucratic knuckleheads who assail him. As the presumptive Robot-in-Chief, Liev Schrieber ("Scream," "The Sum of All Fears") slithers through the film, a chilling mix of glad-handing unctuousness and murderous ambition. Their encounters, shot largely in extreme close-ups, give the movie what dramatic heft it has.

Meryl Streep's highly anticipated performance as the candidate's Lady Macbeth of a mother, however, is a letdown. Angela Lansbury triumphed playing the corresponding role in the original, but she had the advantage of a literate script that endowed her character with one of the most villainously twisted psyches in film history. By contrast, Streep's character is not so much a human being as a depthless, hard-edge persona of the kind encountered on "Hardball. She growls and shows her fangs with the regularity of Old Faithful, but the writers have forgotten to explain just what it is she hopes to accomplish with her son's political power. Without the Cold War to lend structure to the action, it's not exactly clear what the ultimate aims of anyone in the picture are.

It's somehow appropriate that the theme of this new "Manchurian Candidate" is corporate takeover, because in the decades between the original and the remake, Hollywood itself has come under the thumb of multinational conglomerates, congenitally averse to risky filmmaking. The original movie had a vision — quirky, unnerving, enduring — but the version now in theaters just has a market niche. **1/2 S



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