Movies We Like
It's not easy to heap praise on Mel Gibson. His apparent personal conduct and views are completely unappealing and, worse, totally offensive. On screen Gibson started out with a bang in the Mad Max films and was entertaining in the first Lethal Weapon movie, but otherwise his performances and choices of roles have not been very memorable. As a director, I couldn’t slog through his The Passion of the Christ; Man Without A Face was trite; and Braveheart was an overrated piece of hokum. All that aside, it’s easy to declare that his Mayan action adventure film, Apocalypto, is pretty damn brilliant, maybe even a sorta-whacked out masterpiece.
The film takes place in 16th century Central America near the end of the Mayan period, just before the arrival of the Spanish. It’s shot completely in the Yucatan Maya language with unknowns and non-actors, indigenous North Americans. In some ways the film is actually one long, exciting, and very brutal chase scene. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), low on his tribe's totem pole, witnesses his tribe being slaughtered and enslaved. He hides his wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and child and goes on an adventure worthy of Playstation. After killing of some of the raiders he is captured by the psychotic Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and led to the Mayan city, a much more advanced and destructive place than anything the young villager had experienced before. Jaguar Paw manages to escape after much horrific torture and human sacrifices, and is chased as he tries to get back to save his family. It’s a delirious obstacle death course of horror, as he has to make his way through the jungle using all his survival skills to outwit his captors.
There may be some underlining theme that plays into Apocalypto and Gibson’s body of work. The film is making some kind of statement about man’s destruction of each other and his environment, but mostly it seems to portray the absolute brutal depression in civilization. As Jaguar Paw travels from his simple jungle world to the more advanced city, the everyday violence and intense spiritualization get uglier; the more advanced people are much more savage, as is their destruction of nature around them. But actually the through-line in Gibson’s work may just be an appreciation for violence, specifically violence men perpetuate against each other, but in a more naturalist, less visceral way than Peckinpah. Though Gibson does appear to relish his sadistic impulses, it seems to be for the sake of the story, and not just for shock value.
No matter the overall outcome of Gibson’s films, good or bad, the guy is obviously a passionate craftsman. The filmmaking and art at work are completely inspired and impressive. Edited for maximum adrenaline impact by John Wright (Speed), Apocalypto moves fast and should be brisk enough for the average American adventure fan. Though it moves, thankfully it's not too hyper in that herky-jerky Tony Scott style that unfortunately has become fashionable in most of today’s action films. Shot beautifully by Dean Semler (The Road Warrior, Dances With Wolves) Apocalypto is as impressively realized as any film about the 16th century can possibly be. The sets, amazingly, are part CGI work and part spectacular locations. Where Braveheart forced its epicness by saying, “look how many extras we have," the vast space and huge scope of Apocalypto feels more organic and truthful.
The mad genius at work in Apocalypto is like Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick getting together, doing a cross between The Naked Prey, The Mission, and The Most Dangerous Game to create torture porn. Apocalypto is big and it’s grand and it may even be saying something profound about the world, but more importantly, it’s pure entertainment. It all leads up to maybe the greatest extended foot chase in movie history, with a little twist at the end worthy of Planet of the Apes. If only Spielberg and Lucas had hired the nutty Gibson to direct that lame last Indiana Jones movie, they may have delivered a better product. Who knows if Gibson will direct again, but right or wrong the dude has something to say and he definitely goes all out to say it.
Apocalypto was nominated for 3 Oscars: Best Makeup, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.