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Blu-ray Review: 'The Last of the Mohicans'

★★★★☆
Twenty years since its original release, Michael Mann's rip-roaring American adventure The Last of the Mohicans (1992) still impresses with its delicate yet convincing balance between old-fashioned matinee escapism and unflinching period authenticity. Tense yet thoughtful, swooning yet brutal, it's a film of remarkable sensitivity built on sophisticated storytelling foundations. This new Blu-ray's 'Definitive Director's Cut' is not drastically different from the theatrical version, but Mann has tightened the editing, which perceptibly results in a more fluid and graceful rhythm to proceedings.

Set during the French/Indian War of the mid-18th century, The Last of the Mohicans takes place in upstate New York where British and French troops are fighting with the aid of various Native American 'war parties'. Nathaniel 'Hawkeye' Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis), a white man adopted by the last members of a dying tribe called the Mohicans, becomes the unwitting protector of Cora and Alice Munro (Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May), the daughters of a British colonel (Maurice Roeves) after sadistic Huron warrior Magua (Wes Studi) targets the girls in revenge for a past injustice committed against his family by the colonel.

Mann's adaptation is more reliant on Philip Dunne's lively 1936 screenplay than James Fenimore Cooper's almost impenetrable novel. At its core, The Last of the Mohicans is a heroic adventure story of rich romanticism, yet Mann also injects a brutal authenticity, building a convincing portrait of the era through vicious hand-to-hand combat and unscrupulous colonial politics. The balance between these two elements is expertly demonstrated in Day-Lewis' performance. Eschewing the thunderous force-of-nature acting of his later roles, he shows a lightness of touch and quiet authority all too rare in his recent work.

As shot by Dante Spinotti, upstate New York has a primal and untamed quality, a roughness that is equalled by the rugged realism of the portrayal of colonials living on the land. Mann strove to replicate the feel of the period in every way; the costumes, weapons and even the way people lived were meticulously researched and recreated on screen. This attention to detail seems effortless, perfectly blending into the narrative.

Underlying all the action and rich storytelling is an understated thoughtfulness. Set at the point where a different, modern America was born, bloodied and conflict-ridden, The Last of the Mohicans stresses the importance of freedom and self-determination, and plays these ideas out against a sense of fin de siècle mournfulness. While on the one hand an entertaining and technically superior spectacle, it's these central ideas that still resonate today.

Craig Williams
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