Mel Gibson has done it again. This time he takes that old staple of action films – the chase – and wraps it in the cautionary tale about a dying ancient culture. Told primarily from the viewpoint of one young warrior of a Mayan clan, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), Gibson moves from the idyll of simple village life to the horror of a slaver attack and the captives’ gruesome sacrifice to the gods in “Apocalypto.”
Whether you enjoy his recent public antics or not, you have to hand it to Gibson as a first-class filmmaker who has proven his ability to mix action, extreme violence, high drama and romance into an exciting, often gripping, bundle. “Braveheart” struck a chord with the Academy, critics and audiences everywhere and The Passion of the Christ” earned $370 million domestically alone.
On the surface, you might think that Mel done lost his mind considering that he tells a story about Mayan Indians in an ancient tongue (turning off the I-hate-subtitles crowd). But, from the opening minutes as we watch the men of the focal tribe hunt a tapir in a furious blur of action, we get some of the most excitingly executed foot chase scenes ever. Add to this the core story of Jaguar Paw’s arduous battle to save his pregnant wife and child and the visually stunning sacrifices to appease the gods and we get a two-plus hour film that, literally, flies by.
Another amazing thing about “Apocalypto” is Gibson’s use of non-actors and unknowns in all the roles. The characters effectively put you in their world as we see the clan make peace with a passing tribe looking to start a new life after some unnamed disaster. Soon after, during the early hours of the day, they are raided by an overwhelming group of brutal warrior who enslave all the men and women, killing the elders and leaving the children to fend for themselves.
The action moves to the fast-waning remains of the former Mayan civilization as a famine ravages the land. The priests have taken to sacrificing men to appease the gods and the minion of these rulers sweep the land to keep up the supply of sacrificial “lambs.” Jaguar Paw and the others in his village fall victim to these scourges, are painted bright blue (the ghost of “Braveheart”?) and led to the altar atop a massive pyramid. There, the high priest has the victim held down as he cuts out his heart as an offering to the gods. A natural phenomenon occurs as Jaguar Paw is prepared for death and his life is spared. But, he still must escape his captors if he is to save his family.
As exciting and gut-wrenching as the sacrifices are, it is the chase that is the meat of “Apocalypto.” Helmer Gibson knows his stuff on the action front and brings it to the screen, co-writing the script with Farhad Safinia, with intelligence and a fine sense of craftsmanship. When Jaguar Paw escapes his captor, the manhunt that ensues is fast-paced and almost dizzying with the rapid, fast-moving camerawork (by veteran lenser Dean Semler).
The combination of story, action, excellent costume and makeup and solid performances by the hitherto unknown cast makes for a film that will have broad appeal. Guys will be attracted to the exciting action, gals to the tale of love and loyalty, fans of “The Passion…” who appreciate Mel and a large contingent of the curious, all should find something that appeals in ”Apocalypto.” Mel Gibson may be a man with some serious personal issues but he is one hell of a filmmaker. I give it an A-.Laura:
Mayan civilization threatens the extinction of its simpler living peoples, but one man, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), will introduce them to their end in "Mel Gibson's Apocalypto."
Cowriter (with Farhad Safinia)/director Mel Gibson puts all his psychoses on screen and comes out an auteur, a director of distinctive vision if troubled mind. While it is easy to recognize previous films in the director's third work - the torture of blue painted people ("Braveheart"), mythic signs from the heavens ("The Passion of the Christ") - he takes us someplace no filmmaker ever has before. "Apocalypto" is a terrific, brutally violent action film wrapped in Gibson's need for spiritual purging via physical torment, all capped off with an ironic, "Planet of the Apes" style ending.
Gibson's love of the Three Stooges is apparent as he introduces his native Mayan hunters, all having a macho laugh at the expense of Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), a gentle giant who has not yet impregnated his wife. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), the son of village chief Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), tricks Blunted into eating the testicles of the tapir the group has just bagged. In apparent sympathy, Flint Sky advises the young man with even more hilarious and ribald results back at the village. These native Americans speaking in Yucatec are just normal folk, Gibson is telling us, with loved ones and the love of a good story or joke.
That night, though, Jaguar Paw has a prophetic dream, seeing the unknown tribesman they ran across earlier telling him to run. As he awakens, he realizes the village is being raided and hides his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and their young son in a pit. A savage group led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo, "The New World") torches their homes, killing many in the process. A particularly sadistic warrior, Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), taunts Jaguar Paw by killing his father for sport. Then Paw and other able bodied are shackled together and led away, leaving the helpless children behind.
After a long trek towards the city, Jaguar Paw and the others begin to perceive their fate by watching the strange goings on around them. Forced laborers are coated in white dust while those at the opposite strata of society are elaborately made up in shades of green, feathered and heavily bejeweled. Some of their lot are sold at auction, but Jaguar Paw, Blunt and others from their village are painted blue, the sign of sacrifice to the sun god. Atop a Mayan pyramid, a High Priest (Fernando Hernandez, "The Fountain") cuts out the hearts of living blue men before another chops off their heads, which are tossed down the temple steps to the delighted shrieking of the crowd below. But a diseased young girl shunned by Zero Wolf's men outside the city has foretold of blackness during day and a man who brings the jaguar and so when an eclipse cloaks the temple in darkness, Jaguar Paw is spared. He kills Zero Wolf's son making his escape into the jungle and so is hunted himself by the group who enslaved him.
Gibson has pulled off an astounding epic with "Apocalypto," from his direction of a cast made up entirely of native Americans, many with little or no acting experience and all speaking a language unknown to them, to the recreation of a civilization only known from ruins. Every aspect of this production is artistically realized, from the elaborate designs of piercings and tattooing to the tonal precision of the madness overtaking a civilization (when Jaguar Paw gets past the city border, he must cross a huge pit of headless corpses - a vision of holocaust by way of Hieronymus Bosch). Action sequences are astounding and magnificently choreographed and photographed - a waterfall leap, a panicked race with a real jaguar.
It is also easy to see parallels with Gibson's recreation of the past to the present day, not only in the reflection of a people self-destructing via power, corruption and cruelty but from the arrival of a new threat from distant lands, a people who will force their beliefs, believing they are the proper ones for any man, over those preexisting. Gibson needs to find a new outlet for his predilection for wallowing in gory torture as sanctification of his heroes, but damn if he doesn't find a way to make it work one more time in the spectacularly conceived "Apocalypto."
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