As always, I was weary of a remake of the Frankenheimer classic, and for good reason. Have there been any masterpiece remakes that have challenged the original in quality lately? No, and with this film, it's no exception. In spite of star power, acting, and creative directing, it's still just another remake, another imitator. It's no worthy predecessor to the utterly brilliant 1962 take on communism. The efforts of the screenwriters to take the threat to home are never quite as gripping as the original's enemies, and though similar in some respects, the villains here pale in utter comparison. This films plot will, in the end, have you wondering "Couldn't they have done that without the brainwashing and implants?" But then, we wouldn't have a film, now would we. One true error here is that Nichol's bland update lacks any twisted imagery and sheer disturbing sequences we saw in Frakenheimer's original.
Take for example the opening sequences of "Manchurian" where we witness a rally of scientists observing the men whom sit bored, but in their own eyes they're sitting in a lecture about gardening with a group of plump older women. They don't ask why they're there, but they are there whether they like it or not and perform gruesome acts on each other upon the women's commands. But none of that is present here, and by taking it away, they turn this in to just another conspiracy political thriller that lacks any of the power the original held so dearly. With the entire update everything remains slow and lackluster in many respects, and it just loses its effect with color. In the original, the film was told in a sort of nightmarish claustrophobic stark black and white imagery that conveyed to us what mad world these brainwashed soldiers were living in, and brought us in to their minds more than we knew, but here it's just drawn away from that emotion and focused on the gaudy directing of Nichols. As a remake, it's substandard, as a stand alone, it's routine.
Much like the original film, the writers manage to succeed in adjusting all the content from the original film to modern times no longer focusing on the Korean war, but now focusing on the Gulf war, and such events preceding it. Instead of another country being the culprits behind the brainwashing, instead it is us implanting our soldiers with chips to get them to play along with what is taking place during the film. The writers use today's advancements to their best disposal placing the subtext and themes down in to the modern era well. Much like the original reflecting wavering concerns of communism and its sabotaging of our modern politics, this reflects today's concerns with candidates groomed in to All-American men when really intending on changing Democracy in to another more menacing form of rule for which they think is for the better.
Sound familiar? Regardless, director Mike Nichols does have the nuance well played with a claustrophobic and utterly surreal sense of atmosphere and surroundings. There are many well-staged sequences from the paranoid delusions, and Washington's journey in his mind through the series of events that led to the brainwashing. And the deaths are well staged and very disturbing as the first film accomplished with some brutal deaths that convey the dread and tension. There are also some great performances here from Washington as the mentally destroyed Ben Marco, and Schreiber is very good as the conflicted mama's boy Raymond Shaw.
The entire story is composed in a sort of ho-hum manner without any sense of bringing a new twist to the story and takes safe measures with its main cast copping out to the gruesome finale in the original film. True, Nichols admits he strayed away from the original to a degree, but if you're trying to outweigh the original with more star power, why not outdo it as well in terms of violence and commentary? Everything is safe and even the allusions to commentary on the government is thrown away since it takes place during the gulf war. As for Streep, she's great, but Lansbury was the epitome of the overbearing mother who secretly harbored an obsessive relationship, while Schrieber never convinces me he's letting her control him through manipulation. Harvey was so much better in conveying his vulnerability to her, and seemed more emotionally unstable in the end. For what it tries to do, this update never measures up to the original which, even in its subject matter, remains timeless.
Though the remake never adds up to the quality, directing quality, and acting quality as the original did, the remake will also never age as well, but it's still a rather decent imitation in the end with political subtext and very good performances.