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MOVIE REVIEW

The Manchurian Candidate

In this smart remake of the 1962 classic, brainwashing gets a modern spin and paranoia still runs wild

Back in 1962, no one saw "The Manchurian Candidate" coming. The language that the great John Frankenheimer thriller spoke -- of assassination conspiracies and unholy political alliances and paranoia so deep it bled from the walls of the sets -- was completely unfamiliar to audiences of the day. Then-New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said the film's "basic suppositions . . . are extremely hard to take as here

put forth," which was a tony way of saying he thought the plot was too damned ridiculous. Still, the film was a hit and one of President Kennedy's favorite movies, perhaps because the plot was so damned ridiculous. Less than a year after its release, JFK was dead, the conspiracy industry was alive, and "Candidate" star Frank Sinatra bought the rights to the film and pulled it out of circulation for more than two decades, during which time it became legendary.

It's safe to say that no one saw the new version of "The Manchurian Candidate" coming, either: a remake that not only is very good but that burns with fervor and up-to-the-minute topicality. Directed by Jonathan Demme, it comes at a time when political paranoia is the coin of the realm, where a conspiracy theory for every man, woman, child, and dog can be found on the talk radio airwaves and Internet blogosphere.

Yet, somehow, Demme has made a movie that matters. The byzantine narrative has been updated in ways that are fiendishly smart: Scriptwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris (working from both Richard Condon's 1959 novel and George Axelrod's 1962 screenplay) have moved up the hellish flashback sequences from the Korean War to the Gulf War, with the main action taking place during a presidential election right here and now. At the same time, Demme rearranges the furniture just enough to catch fans of the original movie off guard. Toward the end, there comes a point where even they may have no idea where the new film is going, and that in itself is an achievement.

So is the acting. Even if no one here approaches the pulp majesty of the original performances -- Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, tormented by dreams of military brainwashing; Laurence Harvey as his former sergeant Raymond Shaw, an entitled, ice-cold killing machine; Angela Lansbury as Shaw's Machiavellian D.C. powerbroker mother -- the work here is worthy, occasionally startling.

Denzel Washington, for instance. As tremendously supple as the actor is, he can stand at arm's length from his own performances; here he uses that remove to suggest the pressures slowly turning Ben Marco from a ramrod military man to the kind of unshaven nutcase you cross the street to avoid. The gifted Jeffrey Wright, in a cameo role, plays a member of Marco's old company who has long since come unglued. Washington, by contrast, holds it together in a way that suggests both the professional soldier and the professional actor, until a scene opposite Kimberly Elise, as Marco's new lady friend, in which he jabs a finger against his skull and describes with thick-voiced terror what's going on inside his head.

Liev Schreiber plays Raymond Shaw, who is now a junior senator instead of merely a late senator's son: still intelligent, still sadly unlikable, still a well-dressed Frankenstein's monster who essentially looks at Marco and asks, "Friend?" Schreiber doesn't make you forget Harvey, but he holds his own, and he uses a chilly half-smile of resignation to convince you of Raymond's bone-deep loneliness.

Then there's Meryl Streep, phasers set on stun as Eleanor Shaw. Whereas Lansbury stabbed her rivals behind the tapestries in the original, Raymond's mater dearest is also a senator this go-round and does her dirty work in public. Streep isn't riffing on Hillary, as was originally rumored; instead, she plays a kind of castrating version of Katharine Graham, the late Washington Post publisher. Eleanor isn't so much a moral or fiscal conservative as a power conservative, and she plays politics like speed chess. In an early scene, she bullies her way into a smoke-filled room and wins her son the vice presidential nomination on motor-mouthed moral outrage alone. Yes, Lansbury gave the role a deeper, kinkier evil than movies had seen, but Streep is still great scary fun -- she's a joyful Medea.

A few of the changes provide consistency at the expense of the original's lurid intensity. Some will miss the Queen of Diamonds (I know I do), but Demme and company rightly downplay the romance between Raymond and Jocelyn (Vera Farmiga), the daughter of one of his mother's senatorial rivals (Jon Voight). Marco's own love interest, played with inexplicable stubbornness by Janet Leigh in the original, now comes in the form of Elise, and it turns out there are reasons for her ardor. Her character makes sense now, and I say that with relief and also some regret.

Other aspects of the film make a nastier sort of sense. By updating the brainwashing scenes to the Gulf War, "Candidate" plays into our uncertainties about where that conflict has led us, and the narrative rolls so relentlessly toward a dark nexus of money, political power, and corporate clout that the film could just as easily have been called "The Halliburton Candidate."

Demme's direction is assured and relentless. He stocks the cast with his usual surfeit of fringe players (cult rocker Robyn Hitchcock, theater enfant terrible Simon McBurney, mournful Bruno Ganz as Marco's tech-whiz pal, the movie's biggest stretch). The director's longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and editors Craig McKay and Carol Littleton create the sense that 500 news channels are coming at you at once via a pirate feed, and the sound design is simply one of the most remarkable I've ever heard: With random elements constantly filtering in from off-frame, it's the sound of a society going nuts from lack of sleep.

The first "Candidate" was inspired pop art, a two-dimensional coloring book about 1962 America's subterranean political fears. Demme's film is more nuanced, less crazy-brilliant and, yes, probably less necessary, but it's still a confirmation of all the anxieties out there on the table and festering in our heads. At one point the mad-scientist wonk played by McBurney picks up a power tool and announces to a victim, "I'm going to drill a tiny hole in your skull to deliver the new implant." You could say the same about this movie.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

The Manchurian Candidate
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris
Starring: DenzelWashington, Meryl

Streep, Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 130 minutes
Rated: R (violence, language)
***

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