Three years of silence followed the flat, tossed-off L.A. Takedown, in which Michael Mann wrote nothing, directed nothing, and produced very little - the longest period of inactivity in his career to that point. Then came 1992, and the release of what probably counts as the most atypical entry in Mann's whole corpus: The Last of the Mohicans, a splashy, big-budget costume drama adapted from James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel. It is a veritably catalogue of deviations from his established comfort zones: the only film he has made set prior to the beginning of the 20th Century; by far the most romantic story he's ever told; one of a very small number of movies in his career that is in no way whatever about criminals or crime-fighting. Even the film's name sets it apart - his other features are all titled with a one- or two-word description of the film's content, but this one is five whole words of metaphorical import.
Yet a Michael Mann film it still is, amping up considerably the theme of "men and their codes of conduct" from the novel and 1936 film adaptation (which served as the co-basis for the screenplay), and boasting a visual style that, while perhaps not instantly recognisable, bears the director's fingerprints throughout. I cannot say why, at that point in his career, Mann fled so far afield in search of his scenario; but having come up with this particular project, he did not submit to become a mere hack, cranking out a period piece just to get it done and move on to whatever followed. He made it his own, and this is something that is not always true of auteurs with a far more aggressive personal touch.
With Manhunter, I've argued, Mann inaugurated a new phase in his career, incorporating experimentation with cinematic form and vocabulary where he'd previously just been content to make visually poetic genre fare. However, there was certainly no experimentation to be found in L.A. Takedown, a movie that if I'm not mistaken was exactly the sort of cranked-out hackery that Mann otherwise has never approached. And on first blush, there's nothing in Mohicans that looks much like an experiment, either: the cuts are all where you'd expect them to be; the sound is extremely well-done but perfectly straightforward; Dante Spinotti's gorgeous nature cinematography is postcard-ready but essentially unimaginative. Still, I hold that there is an experiment being conducted here: not an experiment in visual language, but in method of representation. The film's overwhelming sense of "typical" is the giveaway: because if there's one thing that big-budget costume dramas very seldom are, it's typical-looking. This kind of film is supposed to be all about lingering glamour shots, frequent use of golden-hour, gaudy diffusion, stately compositions, and all sorts of other very elegant and dramatic directorial whorls. (The most illuminating comparison I can make is to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, a trilogy very much given to those whorls; love it, like it, or hate it, you must concede that it would at least be more interesting if it were more clearly the work of the director who gave the world Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures).
Instead, Mann made this film just like it were any other action-heavy romantic drama. Transpose the setting from the woods of New England in 1757 to the streets of New York, circa 1990 (you'd have to make the armies and native tribes gangs, or something; work with me, it's a thought problem), and there's no fundamentally change that would be made to how it was shot. Namely, with Mann's customary lack of straightforward establishing shots, a stone necessity in most costume epics (not that Mann eschews establishing shots, but almost without exception - its name being The Keep - he blocks action within those shots to tell us something specific and important about the plot and the characters), and his odd but characteristic use of just-too-close medium shots. If he perhaps uses fewer of the latter than is customary, in favor of more wide shots, we can forgive him on the grounds that he was playing around with some $40 million of 20th Century Fox's money, and Mann does not, like some stylistic radicals, strike one as an intentional asshole.
The effect on the film's tone that Mann's embrace of 1992-contemporary visual tropes has is very important, and you'd think that as successful as the movie was, more people would do it: the film is shockingly, overwhelmingly un-fusty. The vast majority of prestigious literary adaptations of the last few decades - since the beginning of the '80s, anyway - are deathly stentorian affairs, tricked out with British actors in possession of the most incredibly lush sticks up their asses, and such reverential imagery that watching them is not unlike struggling to stay awake in church. Not so The Last of the Mohicans, a film that positively sprints through its narrative, achieving the adventuresome spirit so hopelessly absent from Cooper's clumsy and simple novel. Indeed, the film sprints so much that it almost hurts it: there are some expository bits that could use quite a lot more fleshing out. But that Mann fellow, he's not much of an expositionist.
As to that story: it's set during the French-Indian War, and I hope you remember high-school American history, because Mann and his co-writer Christopher Crowe aren't going to try very hard to give you the context for what's going on. All that matters is that there's a British commander named Munro (Maurice Roëves) whose daughters Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) are newly arrived in the colonies, to be escorted to visit him by Major Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) and his regiment, and a Huron guide named Magua (Wes Studi). It quickly turns out that Magua isn't a friend of the English when he leads the party into a trap, leaving everyone but Heyward and the Munro girls dead. Lucky for them, that they are almost immediately found by the last of the Mohicans: Chingachgook (Russell Means), his son Uncas (Eric Schweig) and his other, adoptive, son, Nathaniel Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), named "Hawkeye" for his gift with a rifle, and decidedly not named Natty Bumpo, probably because Mann and Crowe recognised how damn dumb that name sounds.
The whole rest of the movie from this point (about 25 minutes in - all the characters have previously met, in the closest the film gets to a straight-up expository sequence) is effectively one big chase through the New York woods, played by the old-growth forests of North Carolina. Along the way, Hawkeye and Cora fall a bit in love, and large numbers of British soldiers are shot at by the French and their Indian allies. There doesn't need to be much more than that; this scenario gives Mann quite enough forward momentum to keep the film altogether thrilling.
If there's anything other than the top-notch period recreation by the very gifted production design team, and the grand sense of adventure, that makes the film especially noteworthy, it's clearly Day-Lewis. The rest of the cast is fine, indistinct; but as is his wont, Day-Lewis turned the role into a sort of Method playground, teaching himself how to be a backwoods survivalist, and it paid off handsomely: his Hawkeye is a curt, highly effective guide, slowly humanised by Cora throughout the film in an arc that thankfully, neither Day-Lewis nor the script forces very heavily. He makes for an exceptionally good Mann protagonist: defined more by his skill set than his interior psychology, but thanks to the great actor, he has enough illusion of an interior that we never once think of him as less than fully rounded.
Taken all in all, Mohicans is a remarkably successful film, all the more since Mann was well and truly working without a net; and the result was his best work in over a decade at that point. It is perhaps true that compared to other films in his career and in its own genre, Mohicans lacks a certain gravity (though gravity is rather curiously, and not completely seamlessly, introduced in the final scene), but the trade-off is that it's wholly entertaining, and I should very much not want to swap the too: wholly entertaining movies are rare than you might think. At its best moments, from the first ambush to the mesmerising final conflict, it is clear that the man behind the camera is in full command of the project, and we in the audience are gifted with a particularly entertaining prestige picture as a result.
A note: though nearly all of Mann's films were tinkered with after their theatrical releases, The Last of the Mohicans was tinkered with the most of all of them, and it's this director's cut that I saw to write this review. In fact, I've never seen the theatrical cut, and I don't really know what it does differently. Caveat emptor.