Do I really have to start this with a preface about Mel Gibson’s liquor-fueled, post-joy ride, Anti-Semitic rant. To me, the more disturbing development is the director’s recent pre-disposition towards ancient tales of violence and gore that make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like a tea party. But at least when it came to The Passion of the Christ, you knew exactly when and how you were going to be inundated and at least the violence was sold as some kind of ad hoc statement about suffering in spirituality. Gibson’s Passion follow-up, Apocalypto, has the benefit of not being a “message” movie, unless the message is that life in pre-European Mesoamerica was as violent as John Woo’s imagination.
One day while out hunting with other male members of his tribe, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), his father Flint Sky and the others come across a group of refugees from a neighbouring village; they are fleeing some force that has ravaged their land. Upon returning to his own village, we learn that Jaguar Paw has a wife and son and a second child on the way, but he’s haunted by a feeling of foreboding that his family and village are in grave danger. The village is then attacked by a Maya war party that takes several of the villagers as slaves, killing the rest. Jaguar Paw saves his family and hides them in a nearby cavern, but he himself is captured by the Mayans.
Actually, while these scenes are jarring, they merely hint at the bloodletting to come as we soon see that the villagers are taken to the Mayan pyramids where they are sacrificed to an angry god that plagues them with pestilence, drought and hunger. What kind of sacrifice? I’m so glad you asked. They put the sacrificee on a rock, cut out his heart, chop off his head and toss his body away into the valley below. Efficient, brutal, grizzly, Gibson obviously designed this sequence to be the bloody centre piece in much the same way that Jesus’ Roman-handled torture was in The Passion.
Eventually though, Gibson turns the whole thing around as Jaguar Paw makes a daring escape through the jungle towards his family with the Mayans in hot pursuit. Then you realize that this is an action movie and despite Gibson’s past statements about how sending soldiers to Iraq is analogous to a human sacrifice, there’s no deeper spiritual meaning to Apocalypto. What there is though is lots of cool, gory effects.
There’s also a great many brilliantly executed chase sequences and the beautifully shot jungles of Mexico. The cast of unknown actors is completely authentic and anyone not wild about subtitles should know that they don’t often get in the way of the action; long stretches of the final hour are nearly dialogue free. Indeed, the last hour is a master stroke of timing and pacing and set-up but the trouble is that it takes Gibson a long time to get there and it seems as if the only reason for the detour was because it went down the blood-soaked streets of human sacrifice lane.
For the most part though, Gibson does a tremendous job with the technical aspects and invoking of imagery to create what definitely has to be one of the better action movies of the year. Remember when Gladiator won the Oscar for best picture? Well let’s just say that if Gladiator can be best picture so can Apocalypto; they’re both meandering historical dramas with blood lust in their hearts and big ideas in their minds. They’re both about empires in decline and they’re both directed by men once counted out but who always seem to find a way to come back.