Much has been written of Mel Gibson's religion and violence fixations, but few can decide whether the actor-filmmaker is a sadist or a masochist. The long list of films in which Mel has been tortured including his own Braveheart suggests the latter. But his biblical snuff film, The Passion of the Christ, decidedly points to the former. Whichever camp you lean toward, one thing is clear: Gibson's got a thing for violent suffering. Take Apocalypto, his Mayan-language action thrill ride. In it, arterial wounds geyser the jungle floor, faces are torn off, and still-beating hearts are ripped out. If you're looking for a moment of levity, Gibson throws in a ribald scene of testicle munching. The gore-soaked cherry on top is his decapitated head-cam shot. Clearly the violence in his last film was no fluke.
While you witness Gibson's faith-through-anguish obsessions, it's abundantly clear that the man is a helluva director. This raises the old question: Are madness and genius two sides of the same coin?
Despite Apocalypto's allegorical and cultural pretensions, it is, at its heart, an adrenaline-fueled chase film brimming with Hollywood clichés and blockbuster set pieces. There are undeniable moments of grace and brilliance (and undeniable moments of bizarreness), but Gibson is a Tinsel Town creature and his instincts never rise above the conventions of the genre. Nevertheless, as far as action flicks go, Apocalypto is a pretty kickass ride.
An indigenous remake of The Naked Prey, Gibson and screenwriter Farhad Safinia's story focuses on Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young hunter whose village is ruthlessly attacked by Mayan warriors. After hiding his pregnant wife and young son in a deep rocky pit, Paw is taken captive with much of his tribe and marched back to the Mayans' stronghold where the women are sold into slavery and the men are brutally sacrificed. With some divine intervention and much moxie, Paw escapes the Mayans' clutches and makes a headlong dash for home before seasonal rains drown his stranded family. Brutal and intense, Apocalypto's second half is a lavishly staged hunt that sees Paw first elude, and then à la Rambo turn the tables on his pursuers.
The fight or flight scenes are expertly and inventively staged and Gibson knows how to get an audience's blood pumping. Youngblood, a 25-year-old newcomer of Comanche descent, is a terrific find, holding our attention and sympathies every perilous step of the way. Thankfully, his character is fueled more by survival than revenge and the film avoids casting him as a pissed-off Christ. The supporting cast of unknowns is equally convincing and engaging, proving a Gibson knack for casting.
More impressive is Gibson's ability to present a fully realized period piece, which, while it may not have the poetic realism of Terrence Malick's The New World (another recent indigenous drama), still convinces with its attention to detail. Surprisingly, there are small but important instances of humanity in the film: the tribe's prankish sense of humor, Paw's affection for his son, a tragic moment of emotional connection between a freed mother and her soon-to-be killed son-in-law. It's these delicately handled moments that hint at the kind of filmmaker Gibson could still evolve into.
Where the director stumbles, however, is in his fetishistic inclusion of Christian imagery. From Paw's Jesus-like wound to a triptych of heroic rebirths the best of which is an escape from quicksand that leaves the protagonist resembling an actual jaguar the iconography comes hard and fast. The film's carefully calibrated adventure slides into camp with its psychotic villain, prophetic child and climactic birth scene (which left several audience members laughing). Gibson also borrows from his own films: When Paw watches his father executed, one can't help but flash to Wallace's wife's demise in Braveheart.
Amid the high-octane adventure, Apocalypto struggles to say something about the oppression of virtuous "rural" living by decadent "urban" culture. Here the riches of Mayan culture are reduced to a polluted and immoral city that grotesquely sacrifices innocent natives in fear of a capricious God. If Gibson's message is that our vile and degenerate Western society deserves to fall, it's sloppy and graceless. By reveling in the very same violent and indulgent gestures the film supposedly condemns, Gibson shoots himself in the foot with a poison-tipped dart.
In the end, it's better to ignore Apocalypto's symbolic hubbub and instead view it for Gibson's perverse sense of entertainment. His passionate spectacle of human destruction and doom packs a terrific visceral punch, delivering more spills and chills than most of last summer's blockbusters. Visionary but flawed, it's Mel's best-made film yet one that suggests the actor-filmmaker may yet emulate former action star-turned-esteemed director Clint Eastwood. That's if he can keep the drunken anti-Semitic outbursts at bay.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.