Pity poor Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Captured while fighting in the first Gulf War he is subjected to behavioral modification experiments at the hands of an evil corporation. The brainwashing is so gruesomely succesful that Shaw will even kill one of his own men simply for the asking. But what a difference a decade makes. The son of a U.S. Senator (Meryl Streep) Raymond is now a congressman in his own right and a war hero as well for his supposed role in his troop's escape. Strange thing about that escape though he can't remember it and neither can the men he served with. Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) was his commanding officer now is plagued by headaches and a creeping dread that something isn't right. But the national election looms and suddenly his friend Raymond Shaw looks ripe for a spot on the ticket. And if that wasn't enough a cute but mysterious young woman (Kimberly Elise)is suddenly very curious about poor Major Marco.
Washington is (no surprise) great and fans of the original might also enjoy his radically different take on the character first played by Frank Sinatra. His Marco shows the effects of the captivity much more and it is fun to watch this normally poised actor slowly become a mess. Schreiber is fine in the thankless role of Raymond Shaw although he may have been disappointed to learn that his Shaw is basically just a nice misunderstood guy. The original played indelibly by Laurence Harvey was a haughty elitist turned into a mindless automaton a much meatier role. The only actor who really struggles is Streep of all people. Her pivotal Eleanor Shaw is a caricature of Hillary Clinton full of power-player tics and corporate-drone ambitions but lacking the intestinal fortitude to propel the movie somewhere interesting. Even with three main characters hers requires the most focus but it's as if she can't bring herself to do the dirty work. She's not evil she's just vaguely unlikeable. Movie fans should see the original for Angela Lansbury's Oedipal nightmare monster of a performance in the Streep role. Near the end she gives one of the creepiest most chilling speeches ever put on film touching on aspects of fascism McCarthyism zealotry and murder and culminating with a gasp-inducing kiss planted sloppily on her own son's lips. It is as shocking now as it was forty years ago but nothing in the 2004 version approaches that level of intensity intelligence or audacity.
The blame for this mess lies firmly with Jonathan Demme. Sure some people will never be happy with a remake and most won't care but to fumble this badly is either very inept or very calculated (which is even worse). Updating the brainwashing scenes to seem more convincing or the convention footage to seem more modern would seem to be a slam dunk but Demme doesn't handle these well. The brainwashing scenes in the original were a model of subtle surreal ingenuity but here they are obvious and clichéd. And Demme still has that excruciating tendency to cram in as many cameos as possible taking the viewer repeatedly out of the movie. That's annoying enough in something like Around the World in 80 Days but in a thriller that relies on suspended disbelief? Inexcusable. Many of the script and character choices seem straight out of Paramount marketing. Washington's a bigger actor than Schreiber so give him a bigger role. Fine. But some plot points (yet another faceless corporation as the root of all evil for example) make the movie bland for no reason at all. And others (a pivotal scene with Senator Jordan and his daughter played by Jon Voight and Vera Farmiga for example) are so idiotically reimagined that they show a hateful disdain for the audience's intelligence. Married to the Mob and Something Wild showed the quirky sensibilities of Demme's immense talent. The Silence of the Lambs was a certified classic. But now he's just riding that endless studio gravy train into the sunset and it's a shame.