Judging by this year of never-ending refits rolling off the production line, Hollywood's juddering remake machine must be spitting fumes under the strain of it all: Alfie, Dawn Of The Dead, The Stepford Wives, The Punisher, Walking Tall... Barring the nightmare that would surely be Renny Harlin's Citizen Kane, the hands-off-our-classics argument withered and died long ago. For modern Hollywood and modern audiences, remakes aren't just The Norm: they've practically become a genre.
Still, given that Frank Sinatra himself was said to be keen on an update (hence the blessing here from his youngest daughter, producer Tina), a reheat of John Frankenheimer's classic tale of political manipulation sounds timely. From Cold War to the War On Terror, both eras share a certain hushed horror and creeping dread. The more things change, the more things stay the same...
Then again, Jonathan Demme's polished, controlled thriller does make one clear switcheroo. Back in 1962, the Commies were the bastards. Now, it's the capitalists in the pig-dog den, sending Denzel ragged with their devious mind-controllery. (Balls to hypnosis and the power of suggestion: bulging, piped, Cronenbergian head contraptions do the brain-rinsing in our techno-2004.) Which is where comparisons must be drawn: unlike the original, eye tightened and crosshairs aimed on McCarthy collusion and Red Menace, there's fog on the sniper's sights. Come the tense, twitchy climax, The Big Scheme crashes into a conspiracy pile-up: genetics, surveillance, abduction, implants, CIA, JFK, FBI... It's paranoia doubled, then squared, then microwaved. It's not so much "Can you handle the truth?", more "How many truths can you handle?" It definitely adds intrigue, but it doesn't quite add up.
What you can't fault is the spirit of the enterprise, obvious from the three exceptional leads. All Hilary Clinton hair, Barbara Bush pearls and Nancy Reagan ham, Streep is less cold-blooded than Angela Lansbury's glacial Lady Macbeth. Instead, the dominatrix leaks out through teeth-clenched rhetoric and creepy mother-hen peckery (the prissy fussing over Schreiber - "Tie's wrong. Your hair's too flat" - has a queasy, incestuous tang). And while the focus is on Washington (as dependable and believable and rootable as ever, unravelling with the usual Denzel dignity), it's Schreiber who's the true ticket, an ambiguous menace skilfully see-sawing between android-eerie and endearing tragedy-magnet.
Ultimately, if anybody owns the movie, it's Demme. The prowling pace, itchy mood, pervading sense of insidious fear... In its most ominous moments, Manchurian serves as a reminder that the man who made The Silence Of The Lambs hasn't lost his knack for high-tensile suspense.
After a decade of misfires, it's a welcome return to form.