Old Hollywood meets new Hollywood in Michael Mann's 1992 version of "The Last of the Mohicans." Based on both James Fenimore Cooper's novel and the screenplay for the 1936 film version (starring Randolph Scott as Cooper's noble savage Hawkeye) the movie is recognizably, even reassuringly, old-fashioned. Mann provides emotions in big, readily identifiable slabs -- heroism, cowardice, loyalty, revenge, love --
and assigns them to his characters as if he were handing out charades instructions. But Mann also employs an MTV slickness that's pure '90s. He conceives of the story as if it were a gigantic piece of mood music. The look of the movie's ravishing landscapes (shot by Dante Spinotti, with the forests of North Carolina and Pennsylvania standing in for New York state circa 1757) and the faces of the movie's ravishing actors (Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe) carry as much emotion as the story does. And Mann slathers Trevor Jones' score -- a synthesized, symphonic wash -- over everything. When Stowe's Cora swoons against Day-Lewis' Hawkeye in a besieged fort as the night sky glows with the fires of combat behind them and Jones' syrup swells on the soundtrack, you can giggle or you can surrender to the very real charisma of the two stars. Probably you'll do both. "The Last of the Mohicans" is a striking mixture of the ersatz and the genuine. In other words, it's vintage Hollywood. It's also a smashingly entertaining and satisfying adventure.
In his other movies, Mann's specialty has been a chic, chilly existential pulp angst that's as simplistic and inflated as his titles -- "Thief,"
"Manhunter," "Heat." But the adventure-book tone of "The Last of the Mohicans," which is set during the war between England and France for control of the American colonies, clears away all of the director's phony torment. "The Last of the Mohicans" makes you understand why adventure stories were once called romances. It's a date movie in the guise of an action movie. Hawkeye and Cora are like a colonial Tarzan and Jane: She's the white woman who ventures into the wilderness only to be saved by the European who has learned the ways of the natives, and with whom she finds love. That's a female fantasy perhaps even more than a male one. This noble wild man brings out the woman's passionate nature which has no outlet in the corsetted society she comes from. One look at Cora's priggish suitor (Steven Waddington, with his piggy snout), a Redcoat officer given to homilies about how respect and friendship are the basis for a successful union, and civilization doesn't seem like such a hot idea. The way Mann brings together Hawkeye and Cora after he rescues Cora from a band of marauding Hurons shows a witty grasp of movie glamor: You can tell they're a love match by the way Stowe's unpinned tresses match up with Day-Lewis'. Later the pair take temporary refuge in a cave behind a cascading waterfall, the torrents of water standing in for the lovers' emotions. This natural wonder seems to exist to provide a showcase for the stars' sexiness.
Mann shortchanges Stowe and Day-Lewis by allowing his atmospherics to do too much of the work, but romantic roles like these can get down to an actor's essence in ways that more complex parts can't. Stowe has never become as big a star as she should have. Cora is the definitive combination of Stowe's delicate, cameo-like beauty and her unflinching gutsiness. When Cora has to shoot a charging Indian, it's only the expression in Stowe's eyes that's tremulous; physically she's rock steady. Day-Lewis has some fine, subtle moments, as when he allows a ghost of a sardonic smirk to play around his mouth while listening to some idiocy from the British officers, but the heart of his performance is the deadly grace with which he jumps and whirls around as he dispatches opponents in the (breathlessly exciting) battle scenes, or the way he appears to have concentrated every ounce of his being as he runs through the woods. Day-Lewis never seems ridiculous in his long hair and buckskins, never seems to be slumming in this action role because the physicality of his performances has always been on a heroic scale. Like Olivier, he's one of those rare actors who can play a hero without having to resort to parody or apology.
Reducing Fenimore Cooper's turgid novel to a tale of big primal emotions gives the story more immediacy and passion than it ever had. Mann's conception doesn't allow for the lightly self-mocking humor of a swashbuckler. But his willingness to present the derring-do of adventure movies straight gives the picture the sweep and color of legend, as in the moment when the approach of a Huron war party is symbolized by the blurred glow of their torches passing beneath a waterfall.
There is one element that Mann's storybook romance can't contain, and that's Jodhi May's performance as Cora's younger sister Alice. May (she also played Barbara Hershey's daughter in "A World Apart") has almost no lines; possessing a face worthy of silent film, she doesn't need them. Alice spends much of the movie watching in paralyzed fear as her adventure into the colony outposts turns into a nightmare. May plays these scenes almost stock still, unblinking, as if Alice had turned into a movie camera as the images she sees are burned into her brain. With each new horror (which we see as she does, lightning fast and lingering at the same time), you sense Alice retreating further and further from the reality of what's before her. But she returns to possession of herself in a scene that both embraces and explodes Cooper's vision of the character as the pious young woman who will do anything to keep her virtue. May is terrifying in this moment, drawing out the seconds before Alice makes her final choice until they feel like an eternity. May turns the scene into Alice's revenge, payback for every atrocity her young eyes have been made to see, a promise to haunt the dreams of her tormentors. The scene cracks the movie open. Stowe and Day-Lewis may be its heroic/romantic soul. May is its avenging angel.