Mel Gibson makes flawless, purely populist films, like a buffet cook at Flying J's cooking up breakfast sausage. Mel Gibson puts ketchup on his eggs, salt on his meat, and blood in his movies. He also seasons everything with a thick, coating of right-wing Christian glaze the make his film as deliciously reflective as the glassy eyes that gaze upon them so reverently. Despite its foreign language and period setting, Apocalypto is as red-blooded and American as they come, a training montage and an inspirational theme song away from being a movie with "gridiron" in the title.
Beneath trappings of art-house inaccessibility, a simplistic and familiar story forms the backbone of Mel Gibson's latest ode to fundamentalist xenophobia. Set in the jungles of Central America during the time of the Maya, a simple, hard-working people live an idyllic, pastoral existence hunting tapir and laughing in the rainforest. These are good, earthy folk, and if they had the chance to watch The Passion Of The Christ along with the rest of the civilized world, they would no doubt be God fearing as well. However, their world, along with the world of the rest of the Maya, must come to an end, and it does so at the hands of the big, bad city folk, with their poor dental hygiene teeth and body art and shaved eyebrows and probably those black sun tattoos around their bellybuttons that perverts always get. Attacked by slavers from a massive Mayan city, the village is half killed and half captured. Our hero, a likeable fellow named Jaguar Paw, becomes one of the captives, despite pluck, courage, heart, and all those other things that helped Rocky kick the crap out of Apollo Creed. Safely stashing his pregnant wife and child in an enormous hole in the ground, he's marched off to the decadent, baroque excesses of the city, where every deadly sin is visually represented, sort of like a pre-Columbian version of what Pat Robertson thinks Hollywood is like. The women are all shaved and drift across the screen loosely and provocatively, like runway models with a few too many gin and tonics in them. The children are gluttonous and sensuously obese, and the money-lenders and slave merchants have apparently seen too many stage interpretations of Fagin from Oliver Twist. Then, after a solar eclipse stuns the natives into silence, Jaguar Paw escapes into the jungle, the hunter becomes the hunted, and Apocalypto becomes First Blood.
Graphically violent and tensely constructed, the film is admittedly an adrenaline rush, but intellectually vacuous and morally suspect. Yes, the Mayans were doomed, but probably not by the decadence and debauchery moralist storytellers attribute to all fallen civilizations. There were doomed more by, say, the Spanish, and also small pox. And considering that many of the records of Mayan and Aztec human sacrifice come from Spanish accounts attempting to justify why they wiped out an entire civilization for land that turned out to be as valuable as cat litter, I’m not sure I’m ready to take that history at face value. There are things to marvel at in this film, to be sure, with rich visuals and some effectively shocking violence, but with all the exoticism and cultural tourism stripped away, Apocalypto is just an action movie, and a simple one at that. It's got momentum, but that's only because the whole movie is a lot of running. Essentially, it has a man marching from point A to point B, then running back to point A, leaving a couple of booby traps and Apocalypse Now references as punctuation marks. There are other let-downs in the film, such as the occasionally shoddy digital video, or the excessive vamping on the part of the bad guys. All in all, despite a strong performance from lead Rudy Youngblood, Apocalypto's momentum can sustain the film only so far, and then it runs out of steam, collapsing just as surely as did the Mayan empire, but for different reasons.