There are two films this weekend that deal with men who have been trained to kill, but who don’t know why (or even remember who they are): Jesse Eisenberg plays a stoned slacker whose sluggish attitude conceals his subliminally buried training in American Ultra, while Rupert Friend plays the barcoded killer in Hitman: Agent 47, a remake of 2007’s Hitman. For this week’s list, we focused on films in which people have been mind-controlled to carry out someone else’s gruesome desires. Time for a Total Recall, everyone.
1. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) 97%
“The Manchurian Candidate” was John Frankenheimer’s take on Cold War political paranoia, depicting the narrative of an American soldier (Laurence Harvey) who is caught during the Korean War and subjected to indoctrination by Communist spies, along with his fellow soldiers (including Frank Sinatra). Harvey is a war hero back home, but his programming and the political maneuvers of his mother (Angela Lansbury) threaten to unleash deadly consequences. No film can match the original’s almost painfully suspenseful originality, as noted by Roger Ebert, who said, “Not a second of The Manchurian Candidate lacks edge and tension and a cynical spin.”
2. Sleeper (1973) 100%
Woody Allen chose to make a sequel to 1972’s commercially successful Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) that was on a far grander scale: When Allen’s gall bladder operation goes wrong, he’s cryogenically frozen and rethawed 200 years later, where he becomes an unlikely leader of the resistance movement — while falling in love with the woman who initially mistook him for a robot (Diane Keaton), before being brainwashed back into the resistance and then un-brainwashed back into society. Nostalgic in tone, Sleeper poked fun at the dry sci-fi epics of its day by suggesting that, despite advances in science and technology (which some would argue were correct), human folly will continue to rise. “Pound for pound and minute for minute, Sleeper may well have more chuckles in it than any previous Woody Allen movie,” pondered Filmcritic’s Christopher Null.
3. The Parallax View (1974) 90%
It was a golden age for paranoid films during the Cold War, and it reached its zenith during the years leading up to and following the American military’s peak engagement in Vietnam. Alan J. Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy” of 1971’s Klute, 1974’s The Parallax View, and 1976’s All the President’s Men, all of which trembled under the creeping certainty that the public was increasingly being manipulated by the unseen and nefarious hand of The Man, may be the best way to capture this period of unrest. While working on Parallax, Pakula ventured into the realm of suspenseful thrillers, bringing on Warren Beatty to play the role of a journalist tasked with uncovering the truth behind a senator’s murder after his ex-girlfriend, a key witness in the crime, is found murdered. It offered a particularly nasty twist to the manufactured-assassin subgenre, and Tim Brayton argued for Antagony & Ecstasy that it is “One of the great American films from arguably the finest decade in American filmmaking,” with a stellar cast that included William Daniels and Hume Cronyn.
4. The Naked Gun (1988) 88%
This is a subject that is rarely made light of, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have some chuckles, as evidenced by The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad from 1988. On the heels of the violent shooting of his colleague, Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a wealthy shipping magnate’s (Ricardo Montalban) ridiculous plot to use a brainwashed Reggie Jackson to assassinate the queen of England. Because of the original’s near-lethal humor, following installments in the series may have been vulnerable to the law of diminishing returns. According to Roger Hurlburt of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “The Naked Gun is destined to become a cult comic classic.” Returns on the video cassettes will compensate for the lack of a holiday sales bonanza.
5. Conspiracy Theory (1997) 57%
Mel Gibson plays the cab driver who has a crush on Julia Roberts, a wealthy attorney. Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory, a thriller about a man who appears to be a raving eccentric (Gibson), but who may be unintentionally sitting on an explosive secret that connects him with the woman from whom he’s been longing, was a hit in 1997 despite the rom-premise. com’s (Roberts). As an added bonus, the film features Patrick Stewart as an unscrupulous government bureaucrat, and the result is an elegant spy thriller from the 1990s, one that made over $135 million at the box office despite receiving mostly lukewarm reviews from critics. “There’s nothing quite like a big, gorgeous, movie star-driven Hollywood film when it’s done well,” writes Joe Baltake in the Sacramento Bee.
6. Zoolander (2001) 64%
When Ben Stiller’s Zoolander debuted on September 28, 2001, American audiences weren’t exactly in the mood for a parody of the male modeling industry, but they certainly weren’t when Will Ferrell’s character, a fashion mogul, criminal mastermind, and closet keytar player, played the role of a down-on-his-luck model brainwashed into trying to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia. However, despite Zoolander’s lackluster theatrical run and absurd plot, it was praised by critics for its timing and goofy satire. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone referred to Zoolander as a “oases” of “bracing comedy that comes at just the right time.” Dennis Lim of the Village Voice referred to Zoolander as “a freakishly potent farce.” Zoolander 2 will pick up where Zoolander left off 15 years ago, with the sentence “listen to your friend Billy Zane, he’s a cool person” reaching its full comic potential in the home market.
7. The Bourne Identity (2002) 83%
Where do you go when you’ve done everything you possibly can to make a man an unstoppable killer, only to have him miraculously survive a near-fatal assignment with no memory of his previous life, but he still has the lethal skills that made him such an asset? A series of best-selling Robert Ludlum novels serve as the grist for a fast-paced, hard-hitting story that asks pointed questions about the price of espionage while also delivering a plethora of beautifully staged action sequences that should leave action fans hooting with delight regardless of where they happen to fall on the porosity scale. Matt Damon plays the titular ex-CIA assassin in the Bourne franchise. Although “the crunchy combat and unflagging pace” ensure this delivers as genre spectacle, “muddy ethics also provide a satisfying contrast with standard-issue wham-bamery,” reflected Ben Walters for Time Out.
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) 90%
Taking inspiration from historical serials, Captain America: The First Avenger reimagined American military propaganda from World War II while also setting the stage for future films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also served as a fun buddy movie set during World War II. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a lifelong friend of Captain America Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), was presumed dead in the war, only to be revived years later and retrained to continue fighting; the difference, in Bucky’s case, was that he ended up falling into the hands of the other side, who brainwashed him into becoming the ruthless assassin known as the Winter Soldier — and eventually going to be killed by the Winter Soldier himself. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, like its predecessor, features a fight between two super-soldiers while the whole post-9/11 intelligence community is engulfed in shifting loyalties and high-tech conspiracy theories. The end effect is “a movie that is, in the greatest sense of the word, a Marvel,” wrote Christopher Orr for the Atlantic.