Ancient Action

Apocalypto brings Hollywood-style violence and storytelling to bear on Mayan history

Mike D'Angelo

Truth be told, Gibson has a much bigger problem, because if there's one thing the average American hates more than bigotry, it's subtitles. Granted, people quite literally flocked to see The Passion of the Christ, undeterred by the no-name cast and the ancient Aramaic. But that was a story that everybody knows and that many revere. Apocalypto offers no such training wheels. Set an unspecified (at first, anyway) number of centuries ago, the movie plunks us, with neither fanfare nor expository crawl, deep into the Mayan jungles of Central America, trusting us to identify at once with a group of loincloth-clad, ornately tattooed hunters in hot pursuit of a tapir dinner. Gibson honors the undeniable Otherness of these people, to an extent that's truly remarkable in a big-budget movie of this kind; at the same time, though, he wants us to see them as fundamentally no different from us. A couple of ribald practical jokes and some cute parent-child interplay back at the village suffice to make us duly horrified when a rival tribe stages a pre-dawn attack, kidnapping most of the settlement and slaughtering the rest.

Once you find your bearings, the most surprising thing about Apocalypto is how utterly conventional it is. The film's trailer, heavy on hallucinatory spectacle and replete with eerie didgeridoo-style chanting, arguably does it a disservice, making it look weird and outlandish when it's really just an expertly staged abduction/escape/chase flick that happens to feature guys wearing nose bones and blue body paint. Gibson wastes no time in establishing his hero, a rather feckless little guy named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), who manages to deposit his extremely pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son (Carlos Emilio Baez) at the bottom of a deep well before being hauled off in shackles to serve as a human sacrifice. From there, it's strictly a question of whether he can outwit and/or outrun his captors—in particular, the snarling sadist Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), who's already slit JP's father's throat with the salivary relish one associates with carving the first slice of Thanksgiving turkey—before an imminent rainstorm fills the well and drowns his entire family.

As anybody who's been watching his movies for the last three decades knows, Gibson's true pathology is his almost masochistic obsession with the limits of human physical endurance. (It's no coincidence that the New Testament story he chose to tell was the part where Jesus gets the crap kicked out of him.) Apocalypto delivers enough genre thrills to satisfy any action junkie, but the squeamish will spend half the movie with their hands covering their eyes; the central set piece, in which a high priest rips the still-beating hearts from Jaguar Paw's terrified buddies before tossing their decapitated heads down the carved steps of a massive ziggurat—bounce, bounce, bounce, THUD—wouldn't look out of place in a Hostel or Saw sequel. If you have the stomach for such brutality, though, it's rather exciting to see a classical Syd Field-style narrative (three acts, inciting incident, plant-and-payoff, etc.) so radically recontextualized. Gibson may be deluded, but some delusions are more worthwhile than others.

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