Mann In The Wilderness

Not many filmmakers today are attempting grand passions, bold romantic gestures, love stories unfolding against breathtaking period landscapes. It's certainly not what you'd expect from macho stylist Michael Mann, the master of Armani-meets-Sartre urban fatalism, who brought us "Miami Vice" and the movies "Thief " and " Manhunter." Then again, if Susan Sontag can try her hand at a romance, why shouldn't the hard-boiled Mann translate James Fenimore Cooper for a late-20th-century audience? His gorgeous The Last of the Mohicans gets off to a bumpy start, gathers feeling and momentum and comes roaring into the homestretch at full gallop. When this historical adventure kicks in, it's thrilling in the way old-fashioned epics used to be, but its romanticism has a fierce, violent physicality that gives it a distinctively modern stamp.

The setting is Colonial America in 1757. The French and English, each allied with Native American tribes, are fighting over the new continent. Mann's hero, Hawkeye, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, stands outside the fray, committed to neither side. Raised by Mohicans after the death of his English parents, and more at home in the backwoods than in a Colonial settlement, he's traveling with his adoptive father, Chingachgook (Russell Means), and brother, Uncas (Eric Schweig), when he rescues two English sisters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May), from an ambush by tomahawk-wielding Hurons. He agrees to guide them-and Cora's arrogant suitor, Major Heyward (Steven Waddington)-to the fort where Colonel Munro, the girls' father, is fighting off a French attack.

This first act sets up Mann's themes: the divided politics of the Colonies; the treachery of the Indian Magua (Wes Studi), who scouts for the English but spies for the French and vows to kill Munro and his daughters to avenge the death of his family, and the dawning love between Hawkeye and Cora, who finds all this open-air adventure "deeply stirring to my blood."

Mann and coscreenwriter Christopher Crowe stray far from Cooper (they base their script just as much on the 1936 movie with Randolph Scott). The Hawkeye-Cora romance doesn't exist in the novel, where the Native Americans are either sentimentalized noble savages or bloodthirsty demons. These are liberties for which we can be grateful. Where their script skimps is in the depiction of Chingachgook and Uncas: these are "the last of the Mohicans," after all, yet their crucial relationship with Hawkeye is sketchy at best.

But talk is always secondary to the painterly Mann, who likes his dialogue laconic and his images lush. His hero is a man of few words, and if it weren't Day-Lewis playing him, Hawkeye might seem a seriously underwritten role. This amazingly graceful actor builds his character out of body language-it's in his quick, stealthy gait, his cautious grin, the way he loads a flint-lock rifle. He turns this 18th-century action hero into a freshly imagined romantic icon. Day-Lewis has the lean, chiseled profile and the aura of sensitivity of a Montgomery Clift, but without any taint of narcissism. It's hard to imagine a contemporary American actor who wouldn't seem anachronistic traipsing around in a loincloth (remember Richard Gere in "King David"?). Day-Lewis makes the most wildly heroic gesture seem natural. Without being showy, he dazzles. And he's a subtle but apt match for Stowe's proud, pearly elegance-she's like an ivory cameo come to excited life.

"The Last of the Mohicans," swept along by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman's stirring score, is a great date movie. For women, it plugs into the most primal rescue fantasy while presenting a strong-willed, defiant heroine. For the boys, Mann offers spectacular action sequences. The climactic hand-to-hand fights, brilliantly choreographed on precipitous cliffs, put the poetry back into violence. This is the rare recent movie that knows when to end, all passion spent.

Above all, "The Last of the Mohicans" immerses you in Mann's-and cinematographer Dante Spinotti's-breathtaking recreation of the early American wilderness a place of dense summer foliage, raging waterfalls and Edenic valleys. Mann reinvents the great outdoors as he changed the way we looked at Miami. He makes us understand why people were ready to fight and die for this beautiful, savage land.

Mann, the 49-year-old Chicago-born director who gave series TV the look and feel of feature films, is unapologetically fanatic about getting his vision onto the screen. He doesn't make light movies, and he doesn't work lightly. His perfectionism can make enemies. Before this $35 million movie came to the end of its arduous, four-month shoot, he had fired his first cinematographer, the costume designer and the hair stylist quit and the crew briefly went on strike. Doug Milsome, the replaced cinematographer, has complained that Mann wanted to do everything himself. "I'm a director," says Mann, who was famous for overseeing every T shirt color on "Miami Vice." "I tell people what to do. It is my right to involve myself in the details of any department as I see fit." Mann also faced a protest by the Native American extras who charged they were underpaid and kept in substandard housing. (Russell Means, the American Indian activist turned actor, helped negotiate improved working conditions for them but exempts Mann from any blame for the problems.) The director " was tough, and he had to be," says Twentieth Century Fox president of production Roger Birnbaum. "Was he incredibly demanding? Yes. Was he a pain in the ass? Yes. Would I work with him again? Yes."

"Michael Mann is doubt the most driven director I have ever met," says Madeleine Stowe, who relished his obsession with even the smallest detail." The fun of making a film is the thrill of getting to go into a world foreign to you and immersing yourself in it," says Mann. "You crack the books and get to work." Long before he started on the screenplay, he studied the history of the American frontier, read the diaries of the time and consulted historians. He can expound at length on the colors and patterns of each tribe's war paints. "The details make this movie ring true," he says. "Audiences today are more visually sophisticated. They know the real deal, and they know when they've been shortchanged ." Mann insisted on building everything from the muskets to the fort from scratch, using original materials. He found the few remaining old-growth forests that most resembled the terrain Cooper wrote about. Mann and Day-Lewis searched for Hawkeye's character by spending a month in the forests of North Carolina, learning the skills and tools needed to survive in the 18th-century wilderness.

"Filmmaking is all about the palette," Mann says. " I'm interested in the quality of light on people's faces in candlelight or the sound of wind which makes you feel lonely." With "Mohicans," he hopes he's left the world of series television behind. "Life's too short, and there are too many films I want to make." He's secretive about his next project, saying only that it's contemporary. The odds are good, however, that it won't be a madcap comedy.