Movie review: 'Apocalypto'

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2 stars (out of four)

Nothing gets Mel Gibson's blood pumping as a filmmaker more than the sight, sound and splatter of someone's blood actually pumping or, in the case of "Apocalypto," spritzing from an actor's temple, as the forest sunlight shines through the skull just so.

In director Gibson's new picture, a fleet-footed Mesoamerican forest denizen named Jaguar Paw narrowly escapes death after death while destroying his hapless opponents like a 16th-century version of Rambo. Its relentless, single-minded spirit draws equally from "The Perils of Pauline," "The Passion of the Christ" and the "Saw" pictures. Gibson, of course, was the man behind "Passion." From a fiscal point of view, if not an aesthetic one, that film's brick-to-the-skull approach succeeded so well it was inevitable Gibson would again haul out the bricks for the comparatively unfamiliar milieu of "Apocalypto."

Set in the waning days of the Mayan empire, the film relates to Gibson's previous historical epics "Braveheart" and "Passion" in its depiction of a family-minded leader transformed into a bloodied icon of righteousness by those who have it in for him. Jaguar Paw, played by the sleekly photogenic Rudy Youngblood, is blessed with a loving wife (Dalia Hernandez), a soulful-eyed son (Carlos Emilio Baez) and another one on the way. His village's harmonic convergence with the rain forest is destroyed by the marauding Holcane warriors, who rape and pillage and enslave the villagers for auction, or worse, in the great Mayan City.

It is a town without pity. Ravaged by famine and crop failures, the high priest oversees a steady stream of human sacrifices to the god Kukulkan, beheadings that send head after head plop-plop-plopping down the steps of a massive pyramid. (Leave it to Gibson to film a headless body plummeting down the steps in a way guaranteed to get a rise out of teenagers, the way director Roland Emmerich handled the cannonball money shot in another Gibson opus, "The Patriot.").History's most timely solar eclipse spares Jaguar Paw from the ax man's blade. Thus begins the run-Paw-run passage of "Apocalypto," with a cadre of pursuers racing after our hero back to his village. There, pregnant wife and young son are stranded in the bottom of a deep pit, and it's raining, and they're nearly drowning, and she's giving birth underwater ... meanwhile, warriors are getting killed in lingering, salacious close-up by jaguars and snakes. And monkeys are killing each other. It's like a Mayan version of "Grand Theft Auto."

With "Braveheart," "Passion" and now "Apocalypto," Gibson clearly has established his priorities as a director. History is gore, plus a few hearthside family interludes. The trick is instilling the audience with enough rageful bloodlust to make the story work.

Director Gibson is more interested in glowering reaction shots than in establishing fluid lines of complex action. But he's certainly savvy at picking his collaborators. "Apocalypto" was photographed digitally, and impressively, by Dean Semler. Using the newfangled Genesis digital equipment he takes scenic advantage of Veracruz, Mexico, and Costa Rica. The film, in which a multi ethnic cast speaks in subtitled Yucatec Maya, clearly operates from a wealth of detailed research, and even when the individual scenes lack dramatic shape, the historical re-creation works on a high level as the storytelling itself works lower down, on a plane of pure revenge. It all makes for a zippy coming-attractions trailer.

And that's how the movie plays. Gibson and his co-writer, Farhad Safinia, pour on the dread and the ultra-violence, enough so that they make little sense of the larger story. None of the Mayan culture's macro issues -- the factors that may have led to their downfall -- emerge with any clarity or purpose. This is simply a chase film full of shock effects, from the first image (that of a wild boar leaping out of the woods at the camera) to the first 10 minutes' worth of boar guts and organs being passed among the jolly hunters. This is followed by a testicle-eating gag and an extended mother-in-law joke, and intentionally anachronistic dialogue that has everyone speaking in zingers ("You forgot to duck") or badly misjudged comic relief lines ("I am walking here!" says a warrior chief, quoting that gritty 16th-century classic, "Midnight Cowboy").

Gibson and company chose to translate the Greek word "apocalypto" as "new beginning," which has raised linguistic hackles, since the word is a verb meaning "uncover" or "reveal." The director has said he considers his apocalyptically scary-sounding title to be "a universal word. In order for something to begin, something has to end. ... But it's not a big doomsday picture or anything like that." Right. No more so than "Passion," anyway. Gibson's interest in human cruelty and human suffering does not make him unique among filmmakers. His preferred mixture of piety and viciousness, however, makes him uniquely suited to our post-Cecil B. DeMille age of cinematic mythmaking.

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'Apocalypto'

Directed by Mel Gibson; screenplay by Gibson and Farhad Safinia; cinematography by Dean Semler; edited by John Wright; production design by Tom Sanders; music by James Horner; produced by Gibson and Bruce Davey. A Touchstone Pictures release. Running time: 2:17. MPAA rating: R (sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images).

Jaguar Paw -- Rudy Youngblood

Zero Wolf -- Raoul Trujillo

Seven -- Dalia Hernandez

Middle Eye -- Gerardo Taracena

Blunted -- Jonathan Brewer

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