Not the End of the World

Dir. Mel Gibson; writ. Gibson, Farhad Safinia; feat. Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonatha Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Ramirez Amilcar, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios, María Isabel Díaz, Raoul Trujillo, Rodolfo Palacios (R)
Say what you will about Mel Gibson. Seriously, g’head. Say it.

     OK. Everybody done yelling at each other now? Good. ’Cause I’ve got limited space here, and Apocalypto’s longish. (And rather good, besides.)

Gibson’s fourth directorial feature (The Man Without a Face was his first, lest you find yourself straining, as I did, to remember what came before Braveheart), like his last two, is a two-hour-plus, period-piece epic whose central figure — a leader, issuing from an oppressed people — is selected for sacrifice. Quite unlike The Passion of the Christ and “the Scottish film,” though, this one’s more or less straight-up action-adventure; it feels the breeziest of the three, though it technically manages that distinction only by a scant 120 seconds. As with the previous couple, Apocalypto piles on the assiduously realistic violence (fast becoming a Gibson trademark), though said bloodletting seems to pale in persistence (if very slightly) relative to its most recent brethren. Yes, Gibson’s latest behind-the-lens outing may be the least viscera-drenched since he slapped on the prosthesis and learned Nick Stahl some Shakespeare. And no, considering his other films, that isn’t saying much.

Setting: It’s the 1500s, and the great Maya civilization is about to eat it. (Shhh … don’t tell ’em, though. I mean, come on: Would you want to know?) Life, in the meantime, appears reasonably happy and manageable for Jaguar Paw, our able-bodied hero — he hunts tapir with his father and friends, has a doting young wife and son and another rugrat on the way, plays mean-spirited pranks on Cocoa Leaf, the village’s lumbering, hapless Gomer Pyle (à la Full Metal Jacket, not The Andy Griffith Show) — everybody’s more or less content (save, of course, for the tormented Cocoa Leaf, but then, he’s kinda chubby and awkward, so no one cares). This peace is shattered in a vicious raid by warriors, who torch huts, slaughter would-be defenders, and drag women, clawing and screaming, to dark corners. The site thereafter is charred, carpeted with bodies and blood; those adults not lifeless and leaking are bound together and carted off, destined for slavery or worse. When one villager, through a seemingly miraculous intercession, manages to escape, the chase is on — along the way, watch for tumbling, Slinky-esque noggins, sundry perforations, a slo-mo braining, and a near-gratuitous head-eating, via jaguar.

Gibson, as you likely have heard and doubtless will hear again, went more or less authentic on the casting, corraling “Mesoamerican-looking” unknowns and non-actors from Mexico and Central America (and a handful from the U.S. and Canada), then hiring trainers to teach the cast Yucatec Maya — the only language spoken in Apocalypto, which is subtitled throughout. These actors’ inexperience is most evident during the film’s opening, which is, oddly enough, peppered with hit-and-miss slapstick and domestic-sitcom-ish bits (a screwball “overbearing mother-in-law” subplot is justified later, but at first seems daffy enough to nudge the proceedings toward “Everybody Loves Cocoa Leaf” territory; it’s almost surprising Gibson didn’t equip the cantankerous biddy with a rolling pin). At least one such “gag” moment will draw a hearty laugh, but the early goings are still mildly disorienting. Regardless, once the plot gets churning, any dearth of thespian refinement is blanketed by forgiveness thanks to (1) a twisty, enveloping thriller of a storyline, punctuated adeptly by near-misses and gasp-worthy dispatchings, and (2) the arrival of Raoul Trujillo and Rodolfo Palacios, whose respective, menacing performances as the bone-bedecked Zero Wolf and sadistic, gremlin-grinned Snake Ink lend a welcome bit of confident craftsmanship amid the greenhorns.

Certainly, religious significance can be read betwixt these action-adventure lines. End Times, the fulfillment of prophecy, talk of rebirth — it’s all in there. There is, as well, the parallel of a great nation on the verge of self-destruction, hammered home at the outset by an opening-title-card quote. More subtext? “What’s human sacrifice, if not sending guys off to Iraq for no reason?” asked Gibson during a September appearance at Austin’s FantasticFest. These themes aren’t overt or essential to the viewer, though; they seem mostly dressing, and the film clips along, taut and focused, to a reasonably satisfying end. My only real complaint: No big-screen Pok-a-Tok match. 

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