Mel Gibson finds an excellent outlet for his violent macho fantasies in Apocalypto, an impressive action thriller that plunges us headlong into the alien culture of the Mayans, five hundred years ago. Like his violent Jesus blockbuster of a couple of years ago, Apocalypto is completely subtitled, and performed in this case in an arcane Central American tongue. In this respect the film may do good things for the acceptance of subtitled movies: the volume of dialogue to be translated is minimal but action fans will want to know what's going on.
Rudy Youngblood heads a hardy cast performing near-naked in the jungles of Mexico; the sumptuous production goes all out to present a Mayan city on festival day, when the sacrificial pyramids run red with blood. The exciting, beautifully made Apocalypto has points of interest that add up to far more than its gore and brain-bashing action scenes.
It's too bad that Cornel Wilde and Mel Gibson couldn't get together, as they were attracted to the same kinds of movies. Apocalypto's interest in a cinematically neglected part of pre-history redeems what is essentially an even more savage remake of the superb The Naked Prey. In that 1966 film, Wilde engages in a cross-country survival marathon with a band of Africans led by the incomparable Ken Gampu. Vicious chase-games between pursuing savages and solitary runners fighting for survival also turn up in Sam Fuller's Run of the Arrow, where Rod Steiger must outrun American Indians. Before that and possibly initiating the genre is Cooper and Schoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game, an original that's been copied and adapted into many forms. It was extremely graphic and sadistic for 1932. One good thing to say for Apocalypto is that its violence is more a matter of dread than presentation. I mean, Steven Spielberg showed a man's beating heart plucked from his chest in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom over twenty years ago, and the only industry repercussion was the invention of a new rating category ("PG-13") to accommodate kiddie gore.
Movie violence is subjective, but mitigating factors do enter into the equation. Jaws isn't 'sick' or exploitative, as that story is an adventure about man versus nature. Apocalypto is sometimes a little obvious with its messages, as when a proto- Sierra Club tribal sage warns that the greed of man will despoil the Earth. That ecological message is balanced by the conservative, Cecil B. DeMille- like assertion that decadent excess was responsible for the Mayan apocalypse. Perhaps Gibson thinks that the Conquistadors' Jesus could have saved the Native American Heathens? Actually, we can all agree that a little less primitive bloodletting is usually a good thing.
The Indians' practical jokes verge on a pre-Columbian slapstick version of Porky's. Those forest hunters are a lusty bunch that likes a good laugh, especially when the joke is over tricking your best pal into biting into a Tapir testicle! Yuk! Yuk! But most of Gibson's producing and directing brushstrokes work toward the kind of P.C.- free film adventure that movie screens need. In this vision of Pre-Columbian America, Savages Will Be Savages. With their bigger clubs and meaner attitudes, the invading Mayans heap awful abuse on their less enlightened neighbors. The city section is a marvel, with Gibson showing an entire society turned out for the fun and games of human sacrifice. Hundreds of poor and rich revelers cheer the rather cynical master of ceremonies as he rips hearts and chops heads. The monarchs get a close view of the carnage while the priest-politician works the crowd, expertly judging the public mood and 'spinning' potentially disturbing events, like an eclipse of the sun. If Gibson wants us to draw contemporary parallels from all of this insanity, he's got plenty of ammunition.
Apocalypto deserves extra points for avoiding unintentional humor, although I'll bet that gorehound audiences find the tumbling headless corpse to be a real knee-slapper. If anything, we're floored by the level of detail GIbson presents in his Mayan world. As explained in the DVD making-of featurette, hundreds of extras wear elaborate costumes including ornate jewelry and hairdos, not to mention ritual scar patterns, painted decorations and other kinds of makeup. It all has to be made, painted and applied by hand. The priests look terrifying and the royals contemptuously vain, while our terrorized captives are painted blue in preparation to meet their makers.
At about the hundred minute mark, the big 'Run of the Arrow' scene launches Apocalypto into an extended chase. Although employing some traditional gags -- a waterfall, quicksand -- the chase has some highly original choreography. As in The Naked Prey, Jaguar Paw hangs on to his life by laying wicked traps for his pursuers. They are already spooked by an eerie prediction from a diseased little girl, who reads her lines as if she's a distant relation to Paul Atreides' sister in Dune. Savant is happy to report that the fight scenes do not involve Chinese kickboxing or time-warping slow motion, and the clean action editing emphasizes clarity and impact over directorial exhibitionism. Yes, a few plot elements are rather mechanical, starting with a solar eclipse that provides the kind of "that was close" gag we expect to happen to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, or someone like The Great Leslie. Our hero also settles a couple of personal scores along the way, John Wayne- style. But Apocalypto uses its plot points with intelligence -- when a downpour starts, Jaguar Paw realizes that the pit his family is stuck in is going to flood.
The ending has an interesting surprise event that would be unfair to divulge here. The adventure aspects of this entertaining movie far outweigh any ideological messages, except that we might leave the theater thinking that the obliteration of the indigenous American civilizations was a good thing ... we'd surely prefer the company of barbaric Europeans to what Robert Duvall in another 'Apocalypse' movie called "****ing savages." Steering clear of phony historical baloney (Braveheart) and grotesque religious misanthropy (The Passion of the Christ), Apocalypto can be appreciated largely message-free.
Touchstone (Buena Vista Home Video)'s DVD of Apocalypto looks great, with a finely tuned transfer that allows us to quickly tell when Jaguar Paw is experiencing a stylized dream. Dean Semler's handsome cinematography comes across well, as do the many digital effects that put the actors in proximity to wild animals and other dangers. A close-up view of Mrs. Jaguar Paw using the jaws of soldier ants to close a wound on her young son is an especially memorable detail ... it's probably real.
The extras include a pleasant commentary with Mel Gibson and his writer/producer. The controversial director is on his best behavior and proudly explains every detail of his monster-sized personal production. Remember, the only American attempts at this kind of film have been dismal failures like 1963's Kings of the Sun with Yul Brynner and George Chakiris. No studio committee would ever green-light picture like this one. What, no role for Leonardo DiCaprio?
The brisk making-of docu offers a good overview of the challenges of production, especially the staggering volume of costumes, makeups and archaeic weapons (some invented) for the film. The only place the featurette fibs is in claiming that most of the Mayan city was built full scale, when all the wide shots are augmented with elaborate digital mattes, miniatures and other expert trickery -- just look at the film's extensive visual effects credits. Savant is informed that although the cast endured plenty of tough stunts, they didn't always run barefoot through the rain forest: on tougher surfaces they wore costume sandals and 'digital feet' were later doctored in frame by frame. Apocalypto's visual effects don't detract from the substantial achievement of its on-set production and stunt work.
The only 'why bother' extra is a brief deleted scene (three shots) of a fire-singed deer glimpsed as the captives pass a burned-out village. 'Toasty Bambi' was probably jettisoned for fear that audiences might assume that the "sadistic" Mel Gibson put 'er to the torch!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Apocalypto rates:
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