The grass is tall and bright, bright green, and so is the forest on either side of it. Through the clearing marches a small army of British soldiers. Elegant in their crisp red uniforms, the men nevertheless have a slack, defeated air; it is 1757, and they have just surrendered Fort William Henry to the French army. Suddenly, a sound comes out of the forest, a sound at once thrilling and terrifying: It's the exultant whoop of Native American war cries. For a few seconds, dread hangs in the air. Then dozens of Hurons spill forth, tomahawks poised, guns firing.
No rampage has ever looked or sounded quite like this. The tomahawks are buried in chests with a sickening thwack! Men are scalped but graphically, in fast, surgical strokes. Then Magua (Wes Studi), leader of the Hurons, locates the man he is after, the English colonel (Maurice Roeves) he holds responsible for the death of his children. As vengeance, Magua stares into the wounded man's face and slowly, deliberately cuts out his heart. No random savagery here: This is war as the absolute expression of dark human will. Through it all runs a small, deft, balletic figure, his galloping movements as sleek as an elk's, his face determined yet strangely calm, like that of a basketball player on a fast break. It is Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), the hunting/ tracking/fighting superstar, a peerless icon of speed, honor, and daring.
The Last of the Mohicans, Michael Mann's fierce and beautiful adaptation of the James Fenimore Cooper novel, has scenes of brutal physical power that hold you in thrall. Mann doesn't distance Cooper's episodic tale of war and adventure on the American frontier; he plunges you into 18th-century combat as surely as Francis Coppola placed you in the Vietnam jungles in Apocalypse Now. The woodland skirmishes are raw and electrifying, with a zigzaggy, quick-as-the-eye fleetness. In one scene, the Hurons, who are like early versions of guerrilla fighters, dodge a spray of British gunfire and then, moments later, spring up in a line to fire back on cue. (They can predict when the bullets are coming because the British fire rhythmically.) The battle scenes, dotted with horror, move to the kinetic rhythm of the Native Americans' lithe, darting motions.
The center of the movie, however, feels a little unoccupied. Mann, creator of Miami Vice and director of the brilliant 1986 thriller Manhunter, has filtered the characters and events of Cooper's novel through a modern, realistic consciousness. Yet is Hawkeye believable or even very interesting as a human being? Day-Lewis, a great actor, has said he wanted to play him as a man utterly free of 20th-century neuroses. The result, I'm afraid, is that Hawkeye barely seems in the movie: Day-Lewis has emptied him of the very tensions and conflicts that actors use to create characters.
Small, with a smooth, unimposing chest and elegant tan features, his Hawkeye is a kind of long-haired Zen Boy Scout. Scampering through the woods on winged feet, romancing Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), the colonel's daughter, with the same rapt, steady-eyed gaze he displays while running after a deer or dodging a tomahawk, he's so perfectly centered, so at one with himself, that he seems devoid of any internal qualities. When Hawkeye talks, it's to offer simple, almost minimalist advice. The words roll out in a smooth, vaguely Southern voice that's like a parody of all-American cocksureness he sounds like he learned English from watching John Wayne. There are some promising scenes between Day-Lewis and Stowe, who plays Cora with a tremulous romantic purity. Stowe just may be a major actress; she has the blend of sensuality and yearning that works on audiences like an elixir. Yet the romance never quite flowers, because there's an abstract quality to Hawkeye's ardor. Day-Lewis' achievement here is mostly a technical one: He makes Hawkeye such a purely physical being that the character appears weightless, liberated from the whirrings of his own mind.
Raised from the age of 2 by the benevolent Mohican Chingachgook (Russell Means), Hawkeye has grown into a stalwart, humane hunter. Now, though, he and the other Mohicans find themselves in the middle of an epic turf war. The French and British are battling for control of the colonies, the colonialists are feeling the early stirrings of revolutionary fervor, and the various local & Native American tribes have formed uneasy alliances with the Europeans.
If this all sounds complicated, it is: The first hour of The Last of the Mohicans plays like a convoluted history lesson. I appreciate that Mann has enough respect for the audience's intelligence to sketch in this briar patch of conflicting loyalties. But he outlines the interlocking factions without really making it clear, in dramatic terms, what each one stands for. When the English are defeated and skulk away, only to be massacred, it feels like a cheat: All that historical hugger-mugger just to get Hawkeye, the colonel's daughter, and her younger sister (Jodhi May) stranded in the wilderness.
At that point, however, the movie comes bracingly to life. Mann, at his best, is a master of violence and lyrical anxiety. There's a fight on the edge of a cliff that attains a spooky, almost hallucinatory quality it's the most ecstatic piece of action moviemaking I've seen in years. And Mann has created a great villain in Magua, the vengeful Huron. Wes Studi, who was in Dances With Wolves, has a glowering face, all scars and furrows, that seems to be imploding with rage. At the same time, he reveals that the furious Magua is actually a thoughtful, complex man; he sees what the Europeans are doing to his people, and he despises them for it. Hawkeye may be the hero of The Last of the Mohicans, but by the end of the movie it's Magua's malevolent passion that burns brightest. B+