Gibson's passionate follow-up even bloodier than the last

Apocalypto

on December 08, 2006 by Wade Major
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Many have speculated, and with little consensus, as to why Mel Gibson's efforts as a director have grown bloodier and bloodier with each successive film – from the bloodless The Man Without a Face to the sporadically gruesome Braveheart to the unrelenting brutality in The Passion of the Christ. This time, however, a consensus is forming, for the almost unimaginable sanguinary excesses of his new film Apocalypto seem to suggest that, at least in this instance, Mel is painting the screen red for one simple reason: He likes it.

Apocalypto is a strange, wildly uneven picture befitting its manic director's widely publicized pathologies. As such, it may be the most personal and psychologically illuminating of any of his pictures, an odd jumble of every conflicted sensibility that has ever wafted through his tortured soul. Working from an original script co-authored by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, the film tells the simple story of a young Mayan hunter named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) who shelters his pregnant wife and young son in a well just as their village is brutally overrun by the evil city folk Mayans who slaughter a lot and enslave the rest — including Jaguar Paw — for eventual human sacrifice to the sun god in hopes of sating him with enough blood that he'll end their miserable drought. (Can anyone say “No blood for rain”?) After an arduous trek through the jungle, they arrive at the temple slaughterhouse where the high priest is puttin' on a crazy show for the cheering throng — winning hearts and minds with hearts and heads, you could say.

Via a sequence of events both sublime and ridiculous, Jaguar Paw is eventually able to extricate himself from this predicament and hightail it back to his fam in the jungle, but not without a sizable squad of marauders on his tail.

The ensuing 45-minute jungle chase scene that concludes the film is, beyond question, an exercise in virtuoso action filmmaking. It's the preceding 90 minutes that's more problematic, an intermittently campy, big-budget, message-mongering exploitation epic — shot in the extinct Mayan Yucatec language, no less — that seems certain to leave audiences wildly divided as to precisely what it means to accomplish. There's an intended “message” about the value of indigenous societies and industrialized man's predilection for destroying his environment, but the encapsulating orgy of blood and savagery is so extreme — even in its lighter moments — that one almost longs for the conquistadors to show up and clean house.

Post-screening, one fellow critic quippily observed, “It's Passion of the Christ if Jesus escaped!” But there are also liberal extractions from all three Mad Max films (the Mayan city seems a lot like Thunderdome on steroids) as well as the Schwarzenegger flicks The Running Man and Predator, from which the grand finale draws considerable inspiration.

Like Gibson himself, Apocalypto is both troubled and brilliant, earnest and embarrassing, utterly engaging and appallingly indulgent. As a whole, it's far from great and sometimes downright awful. Yet there's too much to admire in its component parts to dismiss either the movie or the increasingly enigmatic man who made it. Distributor: Buena Vista
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Contreras and Israel Rios
Director: Mel Gibson
Screenwriters: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
Producers: Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey
Genre: Action adventure; Yucatec Maya-language, subtitled
Rating: R for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images
Running time: 137 min.
Release date: December 8, 2006

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