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Bourne to kill

Although set in the present, two new political thrillers look back to the 1960s

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In the post-9/11 world, thrillers have a lot of genuine geopolitical nastiness to draw upon to give their plots credibility and nerve-rattling trenchancy. Yet thematic currency can also function as mere wallpaper in a creative enterprise that depends mostly on the solid foundations of genre basics like surprise and imaginative mayhem. Two new thrillers suggest that the more the world changes, the more the essentials of action/espionage movies remain the same.

Inevitably, audiences for Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate will divide between the vast majority who haven't seen John Frankenheimer's 1962 original and those who have. And the second category will split between those who revere the older film as some kind of masterpiece and those who see it as a smartly made but decidedly strange Cold War relic. I belong to the latter subgroup.

The original Candidate gains traction after Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns from the Korean War as a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, a feat that greatly pleases his Lady Macbeth of a mom, memorably played by Angela Lansbury, who's the real power fomenting the career of her ranting, right-wing, Joe McCarthy-like husband. Some of Shaw's former comrades in arms, however, especially a major played by Frank Sinatra, begin having nightmares that signal a different reality behind the memory of Shaw's heroism: All of the men in his captured platoon were brainwashed by Russian and Chinese scientists, and Shaw was sent home a trained killer with a mind conditioned to respond automatically to his masters.

Frankenheimer's film arrived at the peak of Cold War tensions, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time, too, when the concept of brainwashing was new and frightening. The movie plays on such fears in ways that are sometimes fiendishly clever; the device of cutting between the American soldiers imagining they are watching a ladies' garden club meeting and their actual indoctrination by commie psychologists, for example, is justifiably famous. Yet the politics undergirding the suspense are outlandishly wacky.

Considering that the movie issued from Hollywood liberals--JFK pal Sinatra was a producer as well as star--there was no surprise that it acidly caricatured conservatives and, as Hollywood frequently did then and after, acted as if the idea of internal communist subversion was entirely laughable. In portraying the Russians and Chinese, though, the movie was like a John Birch Society wet dream: Its commies were all diabolical sadists of the most demented and implacable sort. What's more, the U.S. right-wingers were revealed as their tools.

Far from a cogent and penetrating political allegory, the original Candidate today plays like a giant goof, a semi-intended, barely coherent stroke of surreal satire. If anything, it limns not America's Cold War body politic but its fractured and fearful imagination.

In turning to Demme's remake, let me stress that I won't give away anything important regarding its renovated plot twists. To admirers of the first film, though, I'll say that many of the changes wrought by screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris (adapting Richard Condon's 1959 novel and George Axelrod's original script), especially in the tale's latter section, are adroit and inventive. You won't feel you're watching the same film all over again, or a ham-handed stab at novelty.

This time, Shaw (portrayed by Liev Schreiber) and his men were captured in the Gulf War. It's now 2004 and he's a congressman being shoved toward a nomination for vice president by his Machiavellian mom, a senator (Meryl Streep). (Shaw's stepfather is eliminated as a character--a smart move.) But Shaw's reputation as a war hero just won't lie still. Maj. Bennett Marco (once incarnated by Sinatra, here ably played by Denzel Washington) is only one of several men experiencing bad dreams that tell a very different story.

It's worth noting that the film's catchy title didn't make much sense in the first place. Though brainwashed in Manchuria, 1962's Shaw wasn't sent back to the United States as a candidate but as an assassin. In the new version, he is up for office, but then what do you call the film: The Kuwaiti Candidate? As you may have heard, the screenwriters solve this one by making the villain of the piece not Saddam or the Saudis but "Manchurian Global"--a Halliburton-like U.S. corporation.

Shaw is poised to become the nation's "first privately owned and operated vice president," says the script, apparently forgetting about (or coyly cuing our recollection of) Dick Cheney. So this, too, is a bit of a liberal satire cum allegory? Well, indeed. You wouldn't expect Demme, the maker of Philadelphia and Beloved, to suddenly come out of the closet as a Republican. The problem, though, is not the existence of the slant or its direction but the fact that, compared to either the first Candidate or Fahrenheit 9/11, the whole political attack seems all so tame. The first film zeroed in on the Republican Party. In this one, the parties aren't even identified. Shaw could be a younger Cheney--or a glummer Edwards. The climactic political convention looks like the Oscars.

As for vilifying a corporation--sure, I'll buy the idea (look for the upcoming documentary The Corporation, a far more incisively incendiary film than Fahrenheit 9/11). Unfortunately, an idea is about all it is. In Frankenheimer's film, the commie conspiracy and the rightist would-be putsch were both brilliantly personified; the film had the kind of flesh and blood villains that haunt your dreams. In Demme's version, we're told about this devilish corporation, but we never see anyone half as scary as, say, Dick Cheney on a good day.

Given that this review has concentrated on comparing the two Candidates, let me address a lingering question: How will the film strike viewers who haven't seen the original? I would guess that they'll find it steadily absorbing and impressively crafted. Demme is always a very polished and intelligent director, and he gets solid work out of his talented cast. For some audiences, that will be all that's required.

For anyone, on the other hand, who emerges from the film thinking that it could be considerably stranger, more weirdly provocative and, well, thrilling--the DVD store with Frankenheimer's original awaits.

I spent about the first third of The Bourne Supremacy, a high-velocity actioner starring Matt Damon as rogue CIA killer Jason Bourne, genuinely excited, because this spy thriller reminded me of a certain unfulfilled promise, so to speak, of '60s cinema.

Back in the golden age of spy movies, the 007 juggernaut swept all before it, and consequently espionage tales grew increasingly glossy and fanciful, if not wholly spoof-minded. From Russia with Love was the only Bond film that framed its action heroics with dark Eastern European backdrops and hard-bitten Cold War realism. The grittiest terrain was awarded not to spooks but cops, in the likes of Bullitt and The French Connection--films that, not coincidentally, redefined character-as-action in a new breed of nerve-wracking car chases.

So what would you get if you took an updated '60s-style spy thriller and gave it the kinetic wallop, dark palettes and smart understatement of those old cop films? You would get something very much like The Bourne Supremacy--a spy movie that acts as if Goldfinger never happened.

Story-wise, the formula of The Bourne Identity is repeated almost verbatim: Jason Bourne, novelist Robert Ludlum's taciturn revenge machine, is pursued by the assassins of various intelligence and criminal organizations (can you tell the difference?) and has to kill to save his own skin. Only the locations have changed. Last time the Riviera, Switzerland and Paris were featured. This time, Bourne gets violently rousted from Goa, enters Europe through Italy, and encounters major mayhem in Berlin and Moscow.

What distinguishes this film from its popular predecessor is the hypnotic assurance of its taut, burnished style. Doug Liman, the director The Bourne Identity, did a good job establishing the look. But his successor Paul Greengrass, who previously made the Irish political drama Bloody Sunday, takes it to a new level. Virtually every frame of the film scintillates with menace and adrenaline; your muscles tense and your breath halts even when the guns are still holstered.

Would you believe the chases just keep coming? They do, and this, I admit, is why my initial enthusiasm began to flag in the second half of Supremacy. Films like Bullitt and The French Connection gained fame for their automotive energy, but they weren't all car chases. They had larger dramatic purposes and very vivid, nuanced, engaging main characters--qualities that both Bourne films, which center on an action figure embodied by Matt Damon, decidedly lack.

Would it not be possible to have this film's expert style and action along with something in the way of ideas and character complexity? I think so, obviously.

On the other hand, a friend who came out of the film thinking it absolutely brilliant says, "Audiences don't want ideas and character. A movie is better off if it only has action and style." This movie's inevitable success can only bolster that assumption. EndBlock

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