By Lisa Schwarzbaum
July 28, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Manchurian Candidate: Ken Regan

As timing goes, the release of The Manchurian Candidate is right on the beat. Jonathan Demme’s garishly colored remake of John Frankenheimer’s nightmarish black-and-white 1962 Cold War chiller based on Richard Condon’s classic 1959 novel arrives in a 2004 season of high-pitched presidential nominating conventions held in nervous big cities and 9/11 commission findings released to an anxious public. A climate of strident political partisanship mixed with fears about terrorist threats provides ”Perfect Storm”-worthy conditions for a scary summer flick about mind control and corporate conspiracy. For grim absurdist relief, there are the machinations of Meryl Streep as an infernal U.S. senator bearing a hilariously undeniable physical resemblance to the junior U.S. senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton; for a dash of the neo-rococo, there are the visual tics and fillips of the director who presided over ”The Silence of the Lambs.”’

But what this ”Manchurian Candidate” for a new generation makes up for in timing, it lacks in discipline and edge. Even without comparing the production with Frankenheimer’s taut, mad-paranoid illogical beaut (after all, a movie ought to be judged on its own merits), the new version balloons to such bloated proportions of global conspiracy theory and tricked-out action sequences that the bracing sting of cautionary satire is dulled. Compare this ”Candidate” with the original, on the other hand (after all, the remake of such a famous period piece benefits from an appreciation of the original), and the new doesn’t compare with the shock of the old.

In the original, U.S. soldiers were ambushed in the Korean War and hypnotized by sneaky Communists capable of turning properly brainwashed men into obedient automatons with the mere shuffle of a deck of playing cards; now the ambushed Americans are in Kuwait in 1991, their free will overruled by microchips secretly implanted under their skin. Back then Frank Sinatra played the restless, nightmare-prone soldier Ben Marco, just on the edge of figuring out what really happened to him and his men during the war; now Denzel Washington does the honors, the actor’s default righteous passivity robbing Major Marco of some essential heat. The role of fellow platoon member and rising politician Raymond Shaw has been passed from the languorous Laurence Harvey to the more excitable Liev Shreiber; and Streep picks up the terrifying mantle of maniac mother so famously worn by Angela Lansbury.

”The real danger [in this country] comes from suspending civil liberties,” Jon Voight intones as a principled politician on the side of liberal values, in one of the passing references to present-day issues of privacy and national security through which the script by Daniel Pyne (”The Sum of All Fears”) and Dean Georgaris (”Paycheck”) teases us with relevance. Yet opportunities to comment forcefully — passionately, bravely — on issues of contemporary importance, whether about governmental intrusion into the lives of private citizens or manipulation of the electoral process, are diffused and, ultimately, lost amid an excessive interest in, say, the hermetic decor of Marco’s depressing apartment.

Frankenheimer blended bitterness with satire in his portrayal of the Communist menace. In Demme’s retelling, apart from the appearance of outspoken liberal talk-show host Al Franken as a neutral network reporter, the leavening humor is limited to Streep’s severely zany, broomstick-a-flyin’ characterization of Sen. Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, political dragon lady and gorgon mom. Hair molded into a Hillary-short, ready-for-battle coif, Streep bites with mischievous fury into her role, the quintessential monster pol of our era played by America’s quintessential chameleon movie star of a certain age. Speaking kinder-gentler-type rhetoric about wanting to make the country ”safer, braver, stronger” while browbeating every man around her, her Senator Shaw carries the entire promise of the movie’s excitement on her shoulders.

And although Streep does great things — sometimes just by the way she chews on ice cubes in a restaurant — the actress cannot schlepp this picture on her own. Schreiber, too, throws himself strenuously into his work. But absent Harvey’s lighter psychological touch in the original, Raymond Shaw’s torments shade into actorly exercises. ”The Manchurian Candidate” is meant to creep us out by building on a foundation of paranoia just this side of solid. Demme builds his model on stilts of fancy that let too much hot air blow through.