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DOWN TO THE WIRE
REMAKING 'THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE' WAS A LOUSY IDEA, BUT IN THE END IT RANKS HIGH IN THE POLLS

The Manchurian Candidate *** (Out of four)

Rated: R

Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, and Jon Voight in Jonathan Demme's new version of the paranoid thriller about assassins and political conventions. Opening Friday in area theaters.

"The Manchurian Candidate" is the most likable travesty in the history of movies. It may be the most brilliant, too.

I'll make it simpler than that: The movie is an appalling idea but a pretty good political thriller.

It's a travesty because it should never have been made. The world never needed another "Manchurian Candidate" any more than it needs another "Citizen Kane" or "Vertigo" or "Some Like it Hot." But then it never needed another "Stagecoach" or "Rear Window" either and that didn't stop some demented and absurd Hollywood overreachers from trying to compete with a movie masterwork.

And, lest we forget: the last film by Jonathan Demme, the hugely talented man who directed the new "Manchurian Candidate" was "The Truth About Charlie," an altogether odious remake of "Charade" which actually tried -- get this now -- to get away with Mark Wahlberg in the Cary Grant role.

So this "Manchurian Candidate" was a godawful idea from day one. The world could have muddled along fine with just John Frankenheimer's truly inimitable 1962 masterwork.

But, hey, if you have to do something execrably needless onscreen, it helps if you do it as brilliantly as this free-form remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" does. It turns out to be a good, paranoid thriller with Richard Condon's original 1959 novel somewhere in its DNA but so mixed up with a lot of new ideas and altered characters that it's like a great figure's grandchild.

Put it this way: the character's names are the same in this movie. But everything else has been changed radically to protect the innocent (who are Condon, Frankenheimer, his screenwriter George Axelrod and his stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury, who gave the performance of her life in the original and knows it.)

Demme is no fool. Some of his scenes have very small swatches of the original's dialogue but only in the way Bush or Reagan or Kennedy grandchildren have the same eye coloration as their grandparents. He knew that the one thing he couldn't begin to replicate was the original's singular tone - that lunatic and jaw-dropping mixture of political satire in deep focus and pulse-pounding action thriller.

Demme and his extraordinary new cast left the hallucinatory satire and the gloriously strange wit on the shelves of your local video store, ready to be rented at your leisure. They're not even trying to duplicate them, thank God.

So what you're left with is a nifty, if credibility-stretching thriller about some soldiers brainwashed in Gulf War I by means of little chips implanted in their right shoulders.

One of their number - Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) - received a Congressional Medal of Honor but two members of his patrol on that fateful night are having very bad dreams about the mission.

One is a psychologically crippled man (the exceptional Jeffrey Wright) with ravaging post-traumatic stress disorder. He is, literally, the walking wounded. The other, though, is an Army major (Denzel Washington) with more than enough wherewithal to get to the bottom of it all.

What DID happen on that combat mission? Why do their dreams totally contradict their official stories? And what does it have to do with the fact that Shaw is a charismatic congressman who is now, with the help of his power-clouting Senator mother (Meryl Streep), angling to put himself on his party's ticket as vice president?

Here's what: a multinational corporation named Manchurian Global brainwashed everyone in order to get their own privately owned vice president of the United States. Never mind Condon's Chinese Communist villains this time. It's totally corporate.

If all of this is beginning to have the lurid kick of thinly veiled political slander (rather than satire) you also have to admit it's a happily snarky way to re-set an heirloom.

And, yes, no matter what the disclaimers, Meryl Streep's appearance and wardrobe have a distinct Hillaryesque flavor, even if her over-the-top campy delivery doesn't begin to have the measured and even tones of our state's junior senator. What fun there is in this "Manchurian Candidate" is provided by Streep but it's a trivial kind of fun that will take up no space in your memory (unlike Lansbury's truly terrifying performance as a kind of incestuous, frosty Cruella De Ville. Once seen, she's in your head forever.)

The climax is a nicely attenuated assassination plot at a political convention. Suspense crackles.

"Manchurian" connoisseurs and devotees, by this time, will see that so many of the original's roles and developments have been put through the narrative Cuisinart that everything has been changed respectfully - and excitingly too.

And, best of all, there is one good performance in the new "Manchurian" and one terrific one which is, as such things go, justification for the movie.

The good one is by Liev Schreiber as Raymond Shaw, the charismatic but fraudulent would-be vice president. The terrific one is by Denzel Washington, who simply re-created his role as Major Ben Marco from the ground up and gives you post-war agonies that all the sweat on Frank Sinatra's upper lip couldn't quite manage. (And, it may be the best performance of Sinatra's career too.)

For all this modernization, oddly, the original still seems to me more relevant to the world we live in.

Watch, in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/1 1", George W. Bush shift his eyes and chew his lower lip in that elementary school classroom after he's been informed of the horrors of 9/1 1.

And then, in the original, watch clownish James Gregory shift his eyes, chew his lip and fret to Angela Lansbury as the plot is carried out.

Tell me they're not fraternal twins on celluloid.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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