Mel Gibson serves up a heapin' helpin' of red meat in Apocalypto, his foray into the wilds of 16th-century Mesoamerica. Human sacrifice is what's getting all the media attention, but that's only one of several dishes in a veritable smorgasbord of movie mayhem. Heads are lopped off, then rolled down the steps of a Mayan temple. Hearts are wrenched from chests. A spear pierces the back of a man's neck and comes out his mouth. A jaguar rips off someone's face. And I'm just getting started, folks. It's almost as if Gibson, for whom explicit gore has become the specialitÃ de la maison, is trying to top The Passion of the Christ, which spent two solid hours torturing a man to death. What's up with this guy? Is this the only way he knows how to move an audience?
Yes, I was moved ' stunned, even. Gibson grabs you by the throat early on, and he's not about to let go. But you have to wonder what the purpose is this time. The last time, many Christians ' $600 million worth, worldwide ' felt they needed to vicariously experience what Jesus had endured. But why must we pay for the sins of a Mayan civilization that, if Apocalypto is to be believed, ignored all the signs of its imminent collapse, descending into rituals so decadently violent that audiences 500 years later would recoil at the sight of them? Are we supposed to see ourselves in this madness? Is there a line running from the steps of that pyramid to the cells of Abu Ghraib? Can watching a jaguar rip off someone's face possibly be good for our souls?
Gibson must think so, but he covers his bets by focusing on a peaceful tribe of hunter-gatherers who seem content to live off the rainforest's tropical bounty. When the movie opens, they've just captured a tapir, and Gibson deftly conveys their sense of camaraderie, despite the language barrier. (The dialogue's in the Zapotec dialect, hence the use of subtitles throughout.) He's also come up with a whole way of life that seems authentic enough, whether it is or not. Terence Malick did something similar in The New World, which showed Native Americans' first contact with England, but Malick's a dreamer compared to Gibson, who always has both feet on the ground. Apocalypto isn't a philosophical tract; it's an adventure film, a pre-CortÃs Rambo.
Rudy Youngblood, a Native American acting in his first film, is Jaguar Paw, a tribesman who manages to hide his pregnant wife and young son down a well before being hauled off by marauders looking for fresh meat with which to appease their gods. And it soon becomes clear that the early scenes were a brief idyll, Eden before the Fall. Most of the movie will take place on foot, Gibson cutting to the chase early and often. And he seems to have developed some real action chops, conveying speed without losing things in a blur. Spared a literally heart-wrenching experience by a fortuitously timed solar eclipse, Jaguar Paw hits the ground running, and the rest of the movie is basically Rambo meets The Most Dangerous Game. But Gibson and his co-scriptwriter, Farhad Safinia, never run out of ways to surprise us.
Even that old staple, the liberating leap off a waterfall, has a nice new twist. And it's beautifully filmed by Dean Semler, who also shot the Mad Max movies. Gibson obviously paid attention while starring in those, and the warriors in Apocalypto ' pierced and tattooed to within an inch of their manhoods ' could have stepped right out of the deserts of post-apocalypto Australia. Only when we enter the city and climb to the top of that temple do things take a turn for the absurd. It feels a bit like a theme-park ride (Temple of Doom?), complete with having to wait your turn. But Gibson puts us right there on the sacrificial altar with the victims, ready to take the plunge. Not since Gladiator have audiences been treated to such a public spectacle of institutionalized savagery. The difference is that Gladiator had poetry in its soul. As for Apocalypto, it seems to have only one question on its mind: Are you not entertained?