With Apocalypto, Mel Gibson spent an awful lot of time and money making a movie about the Mayan people that won’t fool anyone who’s seen Gladiator. Heaven knows there’s an audience for macho epics with copious amounts of slo-mo blood-letting, but I ain’t it.
For all intents and purposes, the primary Mayan of the story is Jaguar Paw (a charismatic Rudy Youngblood). The movie focuses on his attempts to avenge the mercenaries who destroy his home village, kill most of its people, and take the remainder of them to either be sold off as slaves, sacrificed to pagan gods, or used as target practice.
One searches hopefully throughout the movie’s 139 minutes for a reason to care about anyone in it (besides the panther-like Jaguar Paw, at least). The movie begins with what amounts to a old-school take on Fear Factor, with a boar graphically speared and gutted, its innards given to the hunters as symbols of manhood. The movie’s lone attempt at comic relief comes from a lone oaf who is hesitant to eat a particular part of the late boar’s anatomy (and with good reason). It turns out that he’s the butt of the town’s jokes because he has a nagging mother-in-law and he can’t impregnate his wife. I wonder how many people went to see this movie in the hope of seeing a Mayan version of “The Honeymooners.”
Then the mercenaries come to — as Mel Brooks exquisitely put it in Blazing Saddles — stampede the women and rape the cattle. Then some of the guys are led into town and get painted blue, and there’s an eclipse of the sun that fools the locals just like in that old Mark Twain story, and then… No, sorry, I can’t make any sense of it either.
The movie might have more impact if writer-director Gibson didn’t linger on every little bit of exposition and violence. Scenes are dragged out long after we get their point. At the sacrifice, severed heads roll down the steps of a Mayan pyramid with the frequency and finesse of Fred Flintstone’s bowling balls. Then there’s the beaut of a stunt where a huge tree falls and nearly kills many of the prisoners, just so that Gibson can turn it into a homage to (believe it or not) Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy.
And yes, the movie is just as violent as everyone claims. I hate to come off as a prude about this subject, but when a movie lovingly dwells on its every excuse for bloodletting, you wonder how much of it is meant to make a point about the uselessness of violence, and how much of it is just a movie director getting his jollies.
And you’d never guess at the riches that Mayans contributed to our culture if you’re going from their depiction in this movie. Most of the women parade around like 15th-century divas, and the men act like slack-jawed avengers from a Martin Scorsese movie. When the sacrificing Mayan leader cries out to the gods for deliverance, you feel like telling him that his group is getting what it deserves.
For all I know, this movie might have been well-researched and achingly authentic. The trouble withApocalypto is that it never gets you to care about anyone or anything in it. After viewing characters with names such as Flint Sky, Curl Nose, and Smoke Frog, Poison Pen just has to give the movie a Bronx cheer.