Whatever his personal issues, Mel Gibson is an amazing filmmaker.
Apocalypto is a brutally brilliant adventure unlike any ever filmed, yet aligned with the legacy of Werner Herzog and Francis Coppola, who famously trudged through lore and jungles seeking the heart of darkness.
The journey made his predecessors a bit crazy, and perhaps it is the same with Gibson. Temporary insanity resulted in two classic films - Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Herzog's Fitzcarraldo - and now one destined to be.
Apocalypto is an extraordinary accomplishment with its obscure theme (the collapse of Mayan civilization) and logistical hardships (mostly untrained actors speaking a dead language). Gibson transforms potentially disastrous elements into a spellbinding movie.
Apocalypto also is everything moviegoers pay to see in greatly inferior movies. The violence is off the charts, with graphic human sacrifices, sadistic captors and massacres in 16th century Mexico that don't spare the women and children. You see the point of view from a severed head in its last conscious seconds and ripped-out hearts still beating. The Saw crowd never knew history could be such fun.
There's a mythic hero named Jaguar Paw, played by Rudy Youngblood in an impressively primal performance. When the Mayan king's commandoes invade his village, Jaguar Paw must figure out how to rescue his pregnant wife and toddler son, hidden in a pit.
Jaguar Paw is among several prisoners hauled through the jungle to the capital city. Gibson masterfully shows viewers why, raising Apocalypto from a mesmerizing thriller to an action flick without recent equal.
Apocalypto races through its second half rapidly, ruthlessly and curiously beautifully even amid carnage.
Gibson's obsession with authenticity has him repeating his The Passion of the Christ gambit, using English subtitles for ancient linguistics. Both films could work as silent movies, so accomplished is Gibson's storytelling energy and choices. Of course, The Passion of the Christ was a familiar plot. Finding the same ready understanding of Apocalypto is more impressive.
Although Gibson wisely doesn't belabor the points, Apocalypto also relates to modern times with a pro-environment message and a warning of civilizations corroding from within. The final minutes contain an irony that makes all the action mean something else entirely.
Gibson doesn't declare anything. He leaves that to viewers who will be royally satisfied even without considering the serious subtext. It is insanity to believe that's possible in today's filmmaking climate. Gibson masterfully toes the line between genius and madness.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Ramirez Amilcar
Screenplay: Mel Gibson, Farhad Safinia
Rating: R; graphic violence, sexual situations, tribal nudity, brief profanity
Running time: 140 min. Shown with English subtitles