Monday, October 25, 2010
Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Last of the Mohicans was directed by Michael Mann, who knows how to make a good movie and frame an interesting action scene. I like Heat and Collateral all around; Miami Vice sucked so hard the back of its head caved in, and Public Enemies was a big disappointment, though they both have great action scenes. Mann makes great use of location shooting, and I love him for it. In fact, now that I think of it, his locations and photography pull a lot of weight in the effectiveness of each of his films. In stark contrast to the urban jungle of LA, Mohicans opens with some beautiful mountain-top views of the dense forests of North Carolina. It then cuts to the dense and lush forest floor, as three characters charge through on a hunt. As the movie continues we are treated again and again to beautiful unique real locations. The fort is the only rather visually boring location; it's ugly and full of the "blossoming romance" scenes which still don't really grab me (though a generation of women from 1992 would like to fight me here, I'm sure). But once the story gets back to the forest we're subjected to more natural beauty.
Then there's the action. It's hard to make musket fights exciting, because "aim, fire, reload for 60 seconds" doesn't make for thrilling cinema. Fortunately, the Indians all fight with clubs, knifes, and tomahawks in addition to muskets, and Mann's people choreographed some pretty cool fights that I'm going to revisit as I draw my book. Mann also adds a unique sense of horror to these fights. It's not just a choreographed "hack-block-hack," they usually open in a startling way. The earlier battle when Magua betrays the party he's leading by calmly walking to the back of the column and clubbing a guy over the head is still a shocking moment. Later, the entourage from the fort is making their way through a narrow valley and a Huron warrior suddenly bursts from the woods and performs a similar execution, and it's equally terrifying. During the ensuing fight there's a first person shot of Hawkeye braining a Huron who was threatening his girlfriend. The set-up shot shows the Huron reaching the woman, the next shows Hawkeye seeing this from a short ways away, cut to Huron preparing to execute woman but turning towards the camera, cut to HAWKEYE CLUBBING THE CAMERA IN THE LENS. Great stuff.
When I watched it for the first time I was warned that it had some gruesome moments. I'd forgotten all about that warning until we were in the middle of the movie last night, and marveled that the 18 years that have passed haven't really dulled the brutality at all. It was especially noticeable because my general perception was that the movie was a love story that chicks went ga-ga over. There are scalpings and hearts cut out and axes to the back and, most memorably, Magua's final fight with Chingachgook on the cliff, where bones are broken and stomachs torn out.
And of course there is the cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is the big name. Here's the thing: his performance is fine. Great, even. He embodies the character well. But it's hard to compare with his later roles in In the Name of the Father, Gangs of New York or There Will Be Blood. I think it's because those later characters had accents, eccentricities, and other unique performance-based quirks, whereas Hawkeye is simply a stoic and resolute hero with a basic American accent. He's not quirky and he's not a scene-chewer. I tried viewing his Mohican's performance with a more careful eye, tried to consider certain choices and deliveries, but it's tougher when the role is much subtler than the others I've mentioned. There's a making-of documentary that's new to the Blu-Ray and gets into Lewis' prep for the role. I tell you what, it looked like a ton of fun. Days and days of learning survival skills, hunting, tracking and the like. Even stuff like learning how to reload a black-powder musket on the run! (When watching the scene, I too cried "baloney!", but the documentary reveals that Lewis thought the same thing until they found a guy who could do it.)
I appreciate the movie much more now, having seen it on Blu-Ray. The locations are more stunning, the score more vibrant, the framing and colors more painterly. I'm enjoying taking new looks at films on the format, because it is often like seeing them for the first time. You lose a lot watching movies like this 4:3 on a 32" TV. Even DVD doesn't come very close to replicating the true colors and detail of a period piece like this. Mohicans didn't suddenly rise to the top of my list of favorites, but it certainly rose quite a few steps from the obscure "who cares?" section it previously occupied.
One last note: bonus points for featuring a few seconds of original American Indian lacrosse! Only movie ever to depict it, and probably will remain so.
(Screenshot swiped from Blu-Ray.com)