Picks and Pans Review: The Manchurian Candidate

updated 08/09/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/2004 01:00AM

Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise
THRILLER
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Most times when Hollywood remakes a classic film, you leave the theater scratching your noggin and asking, "Why?" But with director Jonathan Demme's bold do-over of a 1962 nail-biter, you'll emerge exhilarated (the opposite of one's reaction to The Truth About Charlie, his dead-in-the-Seine reprise two years ago of 1963's Charade). This intelligently updated and tweaked Manchurian Candidate is as breathlessly gripping and gloriously convoluted now as the original was when first released. And just as much sly fun.

Maj. Bennett Marco (Washington, in the part played by Frank Sinatra) and U.S. congressman Raymond Shaw (Schreiber, in Laurence Harvey's role) served more than a decade ago in the same Army unit during the Gulf War, for which Shaw won the Medal of Honor. Now Shaw's mother (Streep), a powerful senator, is bulldozing a pathway for her hero son to gain a vice-presidential nod. Standing in the way is Major Marco; he's making a stink over his growing suspicion that both he and Shaw were brainwashed during the war. When Shaw defends Marco by saying, "He's a good man," his mother snaps back, "That's what the neighbors always say about serial killers."

Washington (see story, page 71) and Schreiber both contribute first-rate performances, but the movie belongs to Streep. True, she never attains quite the lethal level of evil Angela Lansbury boasted in the original, but Streep's curdled form of mother love is its own tasty treat. (R)

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