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Remaking a film considered by most to be a period classic is questionable to begin with. But then handing the helm over to Jonathan The Truth About Charlie Demme? Well, any Charade fan can tell you that the result might very well move you to curl up in a corner and claw your eyes.
Though purists will likely still balk, Demme’s 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate shouldn’t set John Frankenheimer spinning in his grave. Then again, it might: Working from a smart, tight script by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris (who, given that his previous credits are Paycheck and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, must have typed), Demme fashions a redo that pays homage but doesn’t copy, that streamlines the story and amps up the thrills without cheapening the material. The result, in other words, is not only the best one could hope for but arguably an improvement on the occasionally ponderous original.
Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber take on the roles originated in 1962 by Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey in this still-relevant thriller about manufactured politicos and righteous paranoia. Thirteen years after seeing combat in Kuwait during the Gulf War, Maj. Ben Marco (Washington) is still called on to speak about the heroics of his platoon, particularly Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Schreiber), who is now a congressman being urged to become a vice-presidential candidate by his domineering mother, Sen. Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep). The problem with Marco’s speeches is that although the words come naturally, he has no actual memory of the events they concern. He’s also plagued by nightmares in which Shaw not only isn’t a selfless hero but is also quite the villain. When another platoon member, Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright), disheveled and clutching a notebook filled with seemingly lunatic scribblings, confronts Marco about having the same issues, Marco becomes determined to discover what really happened in Kuwait.
Demme and fave cinematographer Tak Fujimoto bring their Silence of the Lambs sensibility to what happens next, which also happens to show Frankenheimer a thing or two about effective narrative and efficient pacing—not to mention sinister atmosphere. There is no phony ladies’ garden club here—instead, the brainwashing visions include rows of sweaty, wheelchaired men sporting head bandages and random wounds, arranged in a room that boasts just the right dark, grainy ambiance for torture. And the enemy, suitably changed from Red China to corporate America, is represented by a strangely accented doctor (Simon McBurney) whose soothing drone is downright spine-tingling. (Or maybe it’s his footlong skull drill. Tough call.)
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Washington and Schreiber basically exchange their usual onscreen personas here, with the normally smooth Denzel, in buttoned-up polos and nerdy glasses, playing a smart but schlubby loner and Schreiber slickly fitting into the role of plastic politician. Both command your attention with their not-quite-right characters, and Demme takes full advantage of these vets’ ability in a private-conversation scene in which the screen is alternately dedicated to each actor’s face as they exchange quietly urgent dialogue. Streep, however, is simply Streep. She may play the hell out of her nutcracking, ice-chewing, and now nearly clichéd lady senator—which the actress has adamantly denied modeling on Hillary Rodham Clinton—but she doesn’t exactly bring anything unexpected to it.
Pyne and Georgaris lift a few memorable lines of dialogue from George Axelrod’s original script, but most of this Manchurian Candidate is an entirely new beast. One notable exception is the film’s end, which Demme mimics yet modernizes to dazzling effect. Using a peppy Fountains of Wayne song instead of anything even remotely like the original’s celebrated jazz-classical score to accompany an impending tragedy, the director first unsettles you with incongruity, then stretches the scene way past its logical end—a technique that he seems to have borrowed, strangely enough, not from Reservoir Dogs, but from Rob Zombie’s execution sequence in House of 1000 Corpses. Frankenheimer’s film may have been visionary, but you gotta admit that cribbing from a metalhead is its own brand of ballsy.
The Bourne Supremacy’s approach to thrill-making, by contrast, is so frenetic that the movie seems less like a sequel to The Bourne Identity than to Run Lola Run. Here, however, Lola is named Marie (Franka Potente, of course, but blond and nearly unrecognizable), and the person doing the running is her boyfriend, CIA superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon).
Whereas the first Bourne was a satisfying, if by-the-numbers, bit of puzzle-piecing that followed the amnesiac agent as he tried to figure out who he was and how he ended up floating in the Mediterranean, Supremacy’s plot details aren’t nearly as crucial. Good thing, too, ’cause you’re not likely to catch too many of them by the end of the film’s dizzying 110 minutes.
Supremacy opens with Bourne enjoying a relatively peaceful but slightly insomnia-marred life with Marie in Goa, India. She spends her days trolling the open-air markets in colorful clothes; he hangs around their beachfront home and sorts through old notes and photos in an attempt to recall more of his former existence. Should digging into the past get too icky, though, he’s surrounded by new pictures of the smiling couple to remind him that it’s all over. Happy, happy, happy.
Until, of course, it ain’t. It’s not long before Bourne senses that he’s once again being hunted, and in a claustrophobic sequence through narrow Indian streets reminiscent of Identity’s Mini chase, Supremacy gets kick-started and doesn’t let up until its quiet close, which bookends all the action with another touch of humanity.
Director Paul Greengrass’ nauseating camerawork—in addition to MTV-style cuts, he prefers shots that are Blair Witch–shaky—follows Bourne to Naples, Berlin, and Moscow as he eludes CIA Agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen in crisp Contender mode), who believes he’s responsible for the deaths of two of her men.
While Allen takes over Chris Cooper’s Identity duties in maniacally barking out lines such as “I need answers,” Brian Cox returns as Bourne’s curmudgeonly former boss, Ward Abbott, whose sole purpose seems to be to dryly cut the overcaffeinated bitch down. (Best moment: Responding to Landy’s exhausting rationale for capturing but not killing Bourne with an offhand “You talk about this stuff like you read it in a book” and then walking out.) Damon, meanwhile, is once again sufficiently stoic to allow a secret-agent persona to believably trump his Boy Scout looks.
Though the Landy-and-Bourne cat-and-mouse game is padded with minor characters and loads of detail-heavy conversation, Supremacy’s fun is of the superficial sort. Its scenes don’t exactly flow together so much as stand as discrete how’s-he-gonna-do-it dramas, and most of them are filled with enough clever spy tricks and gut-punching action to be terribly entertaining—Greengrass’ ace is a point-of-impact shot from within the car during a crash, a move he trots out twice. Like Bourne, you may sometimes be confused about how everything fits together, but you shouldn’t be tempted to think too hard about it.CP