Thursday, October 2, 2008


The Mel Gibson movie "Apocalypto" (**** out of ****) ranks as one of the best adventure films of 2006. Basically, "Apocalypto" amounts to a soul-stirring spectacle about human sacrifice and survival set against the last days of the Mayan Empire on the eve of the arrival of Europeans in Central America. Director Mel Gibson, who co-scripted with newcomer Farhad Safinia, does not dwell insufferably on Mayan culture so much as appropriate it as a bloodthirsty backdrop to generate suspense for this old-fashioned, white-knuckled, kill or be killed saga. Indeed, the filmmakers earned their R-rating more for the gallons of fake blood and gore that they splash over the course of the two-hour plus running time, not to mention the ghoulish sight of decapitated heads tumbling like footballs down the side of the temple, than nudity or profanity. Compared with similar scenes from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"(1984), the sequences where a high temple priest (Fernando Hernandez of "The Fountain") cuts hearts out of chests don't appear half as gory. Nevertheless, the faint-hearted may found themselves challenged by such unsavory subject matter. Otherwise, the scenic emerald green jungles teeming with predators and perils as murderous as mankind and the seamless computer-generated imagery of ancient Maya civilization provide "Apocalypto" with exotic locales rarely seen in Hollywood movies. In fact, the last time that Tinsel Town produced a movie about Maya culture was the forgettable and equally forgotten Yul Brynner epic "Kings of the Sun" (1963) with George Chakiris and Richard Basehart. Like his previous movie "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson lets the characters talk in their native tongue (here it's the dialect of the Mesoamericans) so that you have to put up with subtitles. The subtitles, however, take no longer than a glimpse to grasp. Actually, it's entirely possible to ignore the subtitles and just figure out everything for yourself without having to be told. Gibson gives this simple but personal story all the apparent realism of a National Geographic documentary and the largely amateur cast is so believable that you may want to spend your time watching them instead of what they say.

"Apocalypto" resembles a cross-between of the vintage Italian spear and scandal movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s and the Italian cannibal movies of the 1980s. During the first third of the action, Gibson acquaints us with a small village of hunters isolated in a distant corner of the rain forest. The protagonist, a virile twentysomething hunk named Jaguar Paw (newcomer Rudy Youngblood), has a pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and an adolescent son (Carlos Emilio Baez). The movie opens with Paw and his pals hunting a tapir (basically a wild boar) and this initial episode ultimately foreshadows the dramatic finale. While our heroes are carving up the tapir carcass, another tribe traipses up out of the green and requests permission to cross through their section of the jungle. Jaguar Paw spots the panic in their eyes, and his father counsels the hunters against telling the village about it. Later, we learn that this tribe is fleeing from a band of savage warriors led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo of "Highlander 3") who wear more tattoos than any outlaw biker gang and sport some rather painful looking body piercings. These merciless marauders launch a surprise raid on Jaguar Paw's village (think "Conan the Barbarian"), take all the men and women captive that they don't slaughter, and leave the helpless children behind to fend for themselves. During the second third of the action, Gibson stages the incredible journey of hardship on foot that the villainous warriors and their captives take through the steaming jungle, across swollen rivers, and along sheer cliff sides to a faraway metropolitan Mayan city. Once in the city, Zero Wolf sells off the women and presents the men—smeared now with bright blue body paint as custom dictates--as sacrifices to the gods.

Melodrama is all about manipulation and Gibson is the master. What makes "Apocalypto" so exciting is that Gibson aligns our sympathy with the underdog hero and his seemingly impossible plight to rescue his wife and child. At the same time, he serves us up some classic villains that we sorely want to see die in the most painful way possible. Before the Mayan warriors descend upon the sleeping village, Jaguar Paw managed to rush his pregnant wife and his son to safety. He lowers them into a hidden pit in nearby rocky terrain, but the villains capture him before he could get them out of it. When he doesn't have us perched on the edge of our seats worrying about how Jaguar Paw is going to escape, Gibson ramps up the tension by cross-cutting to the predicament that pregnant wife Seven deals with when snarling jungle predators enter the pit and a torrential storm threatens to drown them. The suspense--like the excitement--never flags in this hand-to-hand combat saga. Although you know that the hero and the heroine will survive, Gibson and his co-scenarist keep putting them into one hallowing situation after another. One of the best scenes shows a jet-black jaguar chasing our hero through the jungle while a group of homicidal headhunters hell-bent to kill our hero are in hot pursuit, too. Seasoned moviegoers will spot how the last third of the action resembles the Cornel Wilde movie "The Naked Prey" (1966), the Jean Claude Van Damme thriller "Hard Target" (1993) and the classic "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932) where an outnumbered hero must triumph over tenacious thugs.

Like his Academy Awarding epic "Braveheart" and his popular "Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson proves again that he is a consummate filmmaker who knows how to take an oft-told tale of kinship and revenge and turn it into an evening's worth of entertainment .

No comments: