I so infrequently get to the movies these days that it was something of a minor miracle that I saw two films in two days last week. Unfortunately I squandered this historic opportunity by kind of going to see the same movie twice.
The first time it was called The Manchurian Candidate. When Angela Langsbury was told that Jonathan Demme was remaking the classic 1962 film in which she starred, her reaction was “What a shame — it was perfect the way it was.” Frankly I was inclined to agree, but my curiosity was piqued when the rave reviews started trickling in. Plus, I was was interested to see how they would drag the exceedingly dated piece into the 21st century.
Candidate is a nightmare of a movie, but I mean that as description rather than as criticism. The action takes place 20 minutes in the future (to borrow a phrase from Max Headroom), in a world that’s a slightly exaggerated version of our own. As in the original, the plot centers around a conspiracy to infiltrate the US Government, although this time the Big Bad is corporate America rather than the Communist party. The story begins during the first Gulf War, when we meet Ben Marco, the leader of a unit doing reconnaissance in Iraq. When the squad is ambushed and Marcos is knocked out, Private Raymond Shaw bravely assumes control and manages to get the men to safety with minimal casualties. That, at least, is what Marcos has been told — because he was unconscious at the time he has no independent memory of the event. But the recollections of the other soldiers are highly (uncannily) specific about Shaw’s heroics, and even the US Government acknowledged his extraordinary actions by awarding him the Medal of Honor.
Fast-forward to today, where Shaw is a Vice Presidential candidate and Marco is stuck giving pep talks to Boy Scouts. As Shaw’s political viability is predicated on his wartime heroics, Marco decides to use this opportunity to resolve a few niggling discrepancies that mar the otherwise perfect description of what took place during the gap in his memory. But even more troublesome to Marco is not the flaws in the legend, but the fact that, in his dreams, he “remembers” a completely different account of events, one that’s as sinister as it is outlandish.
The second film I saw was The Bourne Supremacy, a sequel the surprise hit The Bourne Identity. (Actually, I don’t know if the success of Identity was really unexpected, but it was a hit with me, and that was something of a surprise.) It’s Matt Damon again as the titular Jason Bourne, a guy the CIA trained as a perfect killing machine and then tried to snuff after he lost his memory and went all “rogue agent” on them. As in the previous movie, sinister forces are again pursuing Bourne and he has no idea who or why — and, thanks to his amnesia, doesn’t even know if he should know who or why.
The tagline for the film could have been “This time it’s personal.” Pissed that he has again become a target after setting his affairs in order at the end of the first film, Bourne decides to seek out his attackers and take the fight to them. This gives the film a bit of a different dynamic than the prior installment, but there’s still no denying that The Bourne Supremacy, is, at its core, a two hour chase scene. Because Bourne’s CIA training apparently didn’t include seminars on disguise how to change clothes, the baddies have little trouble locating him and, consequentially, he is always on the movie.
(The other thing always in this movie, alas, is the camera, to the point where I sometimes felt like I was watching The Blair Witch Supremacy. Most of the time I found this frenetic style is tolerable, but some of the action scenes look like the directory tied a rope to the camera and twirled it over his head. I know of at least two people who said Supremacy’s “shaky camera syndrome” made them nauseated, and even I left the theater with a low-grade headache, so buyer beware.)
The Bourne Supremacy is an exciting and well-made movie, and contains one of the best car chase scenes ever committed to film. Still, about halfway through the film I had the disheartening realization that I had just seen this movie, albeit it a different guise. The protagonists of both Supremacy and Candidates are ex-governmental officers who are rushing to decipher conspiracies that are somehow linked to their memory problems. The directors of both films attempt to convey the paranoia their heroes suffer by giving the movie a “fog of war” feel, with assorted chronological and cinematic tricks employed to jumble the linear story. And at the end of either the viewer is left with the realization that there was considerably less plot in the film than the convoluted narrative structure would have had you believe.
Still, both films are quite enjoyable and either is suitable for an evening of light entertainment, so I’d happily recommend one or the other. But not both.