Who cuts it as a PC hero for the Nineties? Not the fallen-from-grace Clint Eastwood of Unforgiven or the morally challenged Woody Allen of Husbands and Wives and the headlines. Even Batman is a pissy neurotic. To judge from the following three new films, spanning five centuries and each costing $40 million plus, the gap between heroism and noble intent has never been wider.
The warts-and-all 1492 is scarcely the memorial traditionalists will savor on the quincentennial of Columbus's discovery of the New World. The film's subtitle – Conquest of Paradise – indicates the revisionist course steered by director Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise) and journalist turned screenwriter Roselyne Bosch. Their Columbus, played by France's screen eminence Gérard Depardieu, thinks exploration and exploitation go hand in hand. Neither church nor state – in the person of Spain's Queen Isabel (Sigourney Weaver) and her treasurer, Sanchez (Armand Assante) – knows what to make of this crackpot map maker from Genoa who insists he can find a shortcut to the Orient by sailing west. But if he's right, they'll all profit. Columbus lusts for a piece of the money-fame-power action. And if he kills himself and the fearful crews of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria in following his dream, that's showbiz.
Compared with the debacle of the summer's bland Christopher Columbus (now on video for movie masochists), 1492 boasts a stirring expansiveness. The two-and-a-half-hour epic takes in a chunk of Columbus's life, moving from the events of 1492 to his return to Spain in triumph, his subsequent expeditions, the genocide committed on the Taino Indians under his governorship and his eventual obscurity as Amerigo Vespucci claims the mainland for Spain and grabs the glory.
Working with cinematographer Adrian Biddle (The Princess Bride), Scott achieves visual wonders. He is a master stylist, as evidenced by the recently released director's cut of his stunning 1982 Blade Runner, minus the narration and the sappy ending. But Scott's ingenuity is trivialized by a goosed-up Vangelis score and a script that manages to be both ponderous and thunderously silly. "The New World is a disaster," says the queen, played by Weaver in the bitchily regal manner of her boss-lady character from Working Girl. To which Depardieu's disconcertingly French-accented Italian conquistador retorts: "And what eez zee old one – an ah-cheev-mahnt?"
Clunky dialogue and bizarre international casting (Columbus's brother is played by Britisher Steven Waddington and his younger son by Loren "Billy Bathgate" Dean) can bury the best of actors. And the skilled Michael Wincott (the teen junkie of Talk Radio) gets the worst of it as a Spanish nobleman so evil he makes Columbus's blunders seem benign, which may be the point. Depardieu struggles to keep Columbus's virtues and vices in human perspective. But you keep waiting for 1492 to bust through to the crazed lyricism of Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God or even Scott's expressionist Alien. It never does.
From the opening of 'The Last of the Mohicans,' in which Daniel Day-Lewis's Hawkeye fires his phallic rifle at the camera, you can tell director and co-writer Michael Mann's film version of James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel will not be stuffy. The book appeared in 1826, sixty-nine years after the events of the French and Indian War it describes. Hollywood's most famous film version, with Randolph Scott as Hawkeye, prémiered in 1936. Mann, of TV's Miami Vice and Crime Story, borrows from both sources but relies chiefly on his own research and showman's instincts for something more brutal, erotic and, well, box office.
Though Mann clumsily lays out the Indian and white alliances – the Algonquin and New York's colonial militia with the British and the Huron with the French – the action is richly detailed and thrillingly staged. The siege of Fort William Henry and the Huron ambush on the British are bloodier than Manhunter, Mann's fierce 1986 thriller, which introduced Hannibal the Cannibal to movies. Still, the scalpings and eviscerations can't hide the film's dramatic hollowness.
Mann has slagged Cooper for romanticizing and disempowering the Indians. But except for Magua, the understandably vengeful Huron superbly acted by Wes Studi, Mann falls into the same trap. Hawkeye is the orphaned son of English settlers, raised by his adoptive Mohican father, Chingachgook (Indian activist Russell Means). But in the book, Chingachgook and his son Uncas (Eric Schweig) are the focal points as the last of their tribe. Hawkeye, though a frontier paragon, is a remote figure, immune to European greed and the lure of the flesh.
Cooper scholars may be poleaxed to see Day-Lewis's Hawkeye talking street to Steven Waddington's prissy Major Heyward ("I ain't your scout, and I sure ain't no damn militia") and wet-kissing Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe), the daughter of a redcoat colonel (Maurice Roëves) who wants him hanged for sedition. The lithe Day-Lewis, more puckish than primitive despite the shoulder-length locks, is riveting. Luckily, he and the radiant Stowe can make the cornball credible – even a farewell scene at a waterfall where he vows to find her again, "no matter how long it takes, no matter how far."
It passes all but commercial understanding why Mann would want to convert James Fenimore Cooper into Barbara Taylor Bradford. Besides, the infatuation in the book is between Cora, who has black blood, and Uncas (now relegated to the background along with Cora's simpy sister Alice, played by Jodhi May). Presumably, Mann finds the interracial angle – as relevant as in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever – old hat. By transferring Uncas's passion to Hawkeye and doing away with Cora's Creole roots, Mann turns a tragic love story into an upbeat all-white romance and a mythic American hero into a crowd-pleasing anachronism.
'Hero' heads for the high ground of the dark, sorrowful comedies of Preston Sturges (Hail the Conquering Hero) and Frank Capra (Meet John Doe). Credit the film then for having a goal, even though it loses sight of it with disturbing rapidity. Bernie LaPlante, whom Dustin Hoffman portrays as a curious mix of Ratso Rizzo and Rain Man, is a grizzled, low-rent Chicago thief and fence whose wife (the ever-delicious Joan Cusack) has divorced him in disgust. Their son (James Madio) is also about to give up on the con man. Bernie even steals from his sympathetic attorney, played by newcomer Susie Cusack (Joan's sister) with what appears to be a family talent for wizardly comic timing.
But one rainy night on a highway, Bernie witnesses a plane crash. Grumbling to himself about getting wet ("I got hundred-dollar shoes here"), he aids in the rescue when a young boy who's escaped from the plane begs Bernie to go in and save his father. In the confusion, no one remembers what the savior looked like. Bernie, a crook who is wary of cameras, has hitched a ride with a homeless junkman named Bubber (sweetly and magnetically underplayed by Andy Garcia).
One of the dazed passengers Bernie dragged out of the wreckage is TV journalist Gale Gayley (gorgeously sassy Geena Davis in an underwritten role). Gale convinces her boss – Chevy Chase in an unbilled cameo – to offer a huge reward if the mystery man will come forward and give the network an exclusive. It's an exploitable story, especially when Bubber claims he's the hero and becomes a telegenic media darling. Though Bernie tries to convince everyone from his ex-wife to his bartender (Tom Arnold) that Bubber's an impostor and that he's the real hero, he just doesn't look the part.
With that no-bull cast, plus a script by the gifted David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven) and direction by Britain's great Stephen Frears (The Grifters), it's a letdown that the anticipated wicked satire never comes. The result of this rare collaboration is a fitfully entertaining but softheaded muddle. The media lampoon pales next to Bob Roberts, and the script never delivers on what began as a cutting deconstruction of tabloid-era heroics.
Gayle gets weepy in the face of what she takes as genuine goodness; Bubber starts acting like a Christ figure; and Bernie really can't resist helping those in need – he just doesn't want the publicity Bubber craves. Hoffman is quite touching in a telephone scene in which Bernie breaks down to his wife about blowing their marriage. But the scene's a crock. It's as if the filmmakers decided a bitterly sardonic fable wouldn't play without a coating of Disney goo. The climactic confrontation between Bernie and the suicidal Bubber – he fears being exposed – takes place on the tenth-story ledge of the Drake Hotel. But Hero takes no imaginative leaps, preferring instead the comfort of sentiment and sitcom predictability.