'Mohicans' is lush meditation on killing

MOVIES

September 25, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Last of the Mohicans" is a romance, all right, but the true passion in the film isn't between men and women or even men and men: It's between men and death.

Beautiful and damned, the movie is a long meditation on killing. Perhaps inadvertently, it makes the point that this land has been saturated in blood from California to the New York island. And even if you thirst for action in movies, the sheer accumulation of the body count and the sleek and efficient ways its heroes and villains dispatch their numerous victims may become, in the end, a bit numbing.

Derived equally from the famous 1843 Fenimore Cooper novel and the 1936 Randy Scott oater, the movie follows the legendary frontiersman Hawkeye, of English parentage but raised and trained to Mohican stealth and cunning, through the ambiguous war of 1757, known as the French and Indian War. This was a particularly cynical imperialist tiff that unleashed unspeakable cruelty on the North American continent primarily in quest of nothing more important than new markets; its only amusing irony is that, though they didn't know it then, the French and the English were battling for the prize of getting their butts kicked out of America 20 years later.

Hawkeye is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and let me sum this young man up: He is really cool. His Hawkeye is thin and quick, almost unbearably graceful, a laconic instant American icon, even if the actor himself is the son of a famous British writer. Day-Lewis has made a nifty career so far pretty much hiding his beauty. He lets it all hang out here: He's like a calendar boy from the collective unconscious of the National Rifle Association, under a crown of gushing hair, his aquiline nose like the prow of the USS Maine, his body a braid of sinewy strength.

Still, Day-Lewis is so sure an actor he's able to imbue this mythic avatar with some wonderful human qualities. He gives his Hawkeye a cracked, rustic's voice, grammar slightly jangled but a stubborn passion for freedom clear as a clarion. Don't tread on him. When he isn't moving through the woods at a sprinter's pace, he's watching: all wary eyes and sharp memory. His body language communicates pure macho confidence, guts up the kazoo. Also love of father and brother, with whom he travels, a multicultural all boy's club. But he's got tenderness to him too: He makes you know his fast burning love for a British colonel's adventurous daughter, Cora Munro (played with spiky determination by Madeleine Stowe).

But the real battle in "Last of the Mohicans" isn't between imperialist forces and their lackeys or even white and red, but between the sweeping modernist filmmaking stylistics of Michael ("Miami Vice") Mann, one of the slickest technicians going, and the hopelessly shabby formulaic melodramatics of the material. It's strictly a touch and go thing: Mann is a sensualist who can plunge you into an elemental world in an instant. You're in a universe comprising trees and earth, fire and smoke, and blood, oceans of it. Yet exactly as Mann makes you feel the danger of primitive times, he is continually forced to bluff his way through Cooper's ridiculous 19th century conceits -- endless hairbreadth escapes, noble savages, craven aristos, that weird "old-fashioned" foreshortening of time so that events that would have taken weeks unspool in about 10 minutes.

It's one close shave after another. Major Heyward (Steven Waddington) takes Cora and Alice Monro to their father at a far-off post, blissfully unaware that the French and their Huron commandos have moved in for some serious killing, led by the arch- villain Huron sub-chief Magua. When Magua leads a massacre against the women, Hawkeye comes out of nowhere to save them. Then he takes them into the fort, which is under spectacular siege. Later, after surrender, there's another narrow escape from another terrifying battle; and still later another escape. It's like a loud, expensive game of hide and seek so silky and convincing you yearn to forget how ridiculous it is.

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