*** (out of four)
After Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic outburst last summer when he was arrested for drunk driving, many in Hollywood vowed, on and off-the-record, to never work with the actor/director again. Lots of people wondered if his epic, “Apocalypto,” would even be released by the end of the year. Even if it were released as planned, would it be any good?
Well, I didn’t really know what to expect, but I have to report that, indeed, the movie is quite good. It is set during the time when the Mayan civilization began to decline and tells the story of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose jungle village is far away from any large cities. While hunting with the other men from the village, he encounters a group of people who are running away from a force that ravaged their land. Jaguar Paw doesn’t fully know what means until invaders spring up in the early morning to destroy his village.
The invaders viciously kill many of the women and kidnap some of the men, including Jaguar Paw. Luckily, he is able to help his pregnant wife and son hide in a cave in the nick of time to avoid their death and capture. The captives are then forced to walk on a long, painful journey with no end in sight.
Although they don’t know where they are going, the villagers finally arrive at their destination only to discover that they are there to be used as human sacrifices.
The movie has plenty of strengths, not the least of which is that it fully places the audience into a world that is uncommon to film and that they may not be familiar with. The performances of the actors, most of whom are inexperienced or at least new to American screens, are also very good, especially Youngblood.
You really care about the characters too. It’s obvious, of course, that this is an essential feature to any good movie. However, getting the viewer to emotionally invest in the characters is quite a bit harder for a director to accomplish when dealing with alien territory, such Gibson does here. He manages by building up to the invasion scene slowly by immersing us the everyday domestic lives of the villagers. What could have been a very boring sequence is actually very watchable because we get to observe this strange culture simply going about their day. It isn’t the strangeness that keeps it interesting, though. It’s how relatable their lives are to any close-knit community.
Later in the film, Jaguar Paw manages to escape and has to flee his captors. One thing is for sure: Gibson really knows how to direct edge-of-your-seat action scenes. This is especially critical with “Apocalypto” because the entire final third of the movie is practically one long chase sequence as Jaguar Paw does whatever it takes to get back to his family.
I certainly can’t close this review without commenting on the violent content of the movie. So much has been written about how Gibson has a sadistic streak and how his camera lovingly lingers on beheadings and flesh torn apart that it would be impossible not to comment. From what I had read, the movie pushed the envelope so much with its graphic violence that one might think audiences would all be traumatized.
Well, now that I’ve seen it, I have to admit that the violence has been mostly hyped out of proportion. Maybe I’ve been desensitized, but I’m not even a big fan of gory slasher movies like “Saw,” and “Hostel,” which push the limits of good taste. In fact, there were many moments in “Apocalypto” where I would have expected Gibson to rub our noses in the gruesomeness of it all, but he cuts away more frequently than I was bracing myself for.
But, you see, I was comparing the violence of “Apocalypto” to that of Gibson’s last film, “The Passion of the Christ,” which is arguably the most violent mainstream movie ever made. If you have the stomach for long torture scenes featuring close-ups of Jesus being beaten with a cat-o-nine tails for several minutes, Mel’s latest shouldn’t phase you much.