THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE Denzel stoops to conquer.

The Manchurian Candidate
dir. Demme
Opens Fri July 30
Various Theaters

War sucks, dude. There's no Ricki Lake, never enough peanut butter, and your dick can get shot off. Even worse, the enemy might capture you and brainwash you into thinking that the unpopular coward in your platoon saved your life.

This seems to be the case for Capt. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) in The Manchurian Candidate. Having recommended Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) for a medal of honor because of his supposed heroics during the first Gulf War, Marco even lectures to Boy Scouts that Shaw is "the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being" he's ever known. Marco says nothing however, of his frequent nightmares, which portray Shaw in a much different light--one in which Shaw ain't no hero.

Dismissed until now as effects of Gulf War Syndrome, these nightmares gain more credence when Marco discovers a weird sub-dermal implant near his shoulder blade. Determined to discover the truth, Marco also has a deadline: Shaw, now a congressman, is running in the upcoming Presidential election.

Factor in the creepy relationship between Shaw and his powerful mother (Meryl Streep), several assassinations, some cranial probes, and plenty of shifty goings on by a corporation named "Manchurian," and you've got a better-than-average political thriller/ conspiracy theory potboiler with an impressive cast.

But it's also got a hijacked plot. Compared to John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic, this remake blows. Missing is any tangible mother/son tension, which is crucial to the climax (Streep's performance lacks the requisite iciness; Schreiber's, the essential hostility). And while Frankenheimer respected his audience enough to use symbolism and suggestion as narrative devices (even a Queen of Hearts in a Solitaire game spoke volumes), here the subtleties number fewer than Denzel's scant chest hairs. The closest Demme gets to nuance is a close-up of Streep chomping on an ice cube. Though gripping, the new film is utterly patronizing--but perhaps that's fitting, considering today's moviegoers probably don't even know what Manchuria is.

Unfortunately, I'm left with an even bigger problem: Now I'll have to refer to one of my favorite movies of all time as "the original" to distinguish it from its newer, mediocre incarnation. War, like remakes, sucks, dude.