WARNING: Since the film's trailers have been telling you almost nothing about the movie, for a change, this review can be considered positively loaded with SPOILERS. You have been warned.
When you get right down to it, Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" is really just one more action/chase movie in which a single man makes mincemeat of an army of foes in order to (alternately) rescue and avenge the deaths of his friends and family, dressed up with subtitles and symbolism so that it may (partially) cross-dress as an experimental arthouse exercise. Imagine that Michael Bay has killed Werner Herzog, fashioned his skin into a suit and charged, shreiking, off into the wilderness and you'll have a pretty good idea what the result feels like: A schizophrenic hobgoblin of a movie that appears to have bound forth fully-formed from the diseased recesses of a dark and troubled mind, careening back and forth between the dreamlike state of a nightmare and the more familiar realm of rigid, lockstep genre formula as Gibson further refines the "Boy Versus The World" mythology he's been mining as an actor and director since we first met him as Mad Max all those years ago.
It's been said for quite some time that most, if not all, testosterone wish-fulfillment actioners function as love-letters to primitivism; their heroes so often successful only after embracing their inner cro-magnon. Recall "Die Hard's" John McClaine, streaked in blood and stripped of his shoes before he can confront the suit-clad Euro-foes. Recall John Rambo's retreat to the Forest Primeval to gain the edge of his better-armed pursuers in "First Blood." Recall that same John Rambo again in the sequel, rising camoflauged from the mud, shorn of clothing down to rags and a bare chest, taking down his enemies with weaponry which represents an entire epoch of pre-industrial human civilization... a bow and arrow.
"Apocalypto," in a way, represents an absolute boiling-down of this particular aspect of the genre's subtext; it's hero need not return to The Forest to recharge his heroic instincts, he's already there: Jaguar Paw (newcomer Rudy Youngblood) is a young husband and father in an unnamed hunter/gatherer tribe still living a peaceful Stone Age day-to-day existence despite their living (unknown to them) just on the outskirts of the advanced Mayan civilization during what is presumably sometime between the late 16th to 17th Century.
It's through this fascinating choice of setting that the story is able to continue it's overall merging of outward-otherworldliness with structural-formality: Amusingly, despite the filmmakers' gutsy achievement in crafting the first major motion picture set entirely among pre-Columbian Native American peoples in a Native American language, the film still manages to place it's characters in the same basic formula that Native American stories have been limited to for the last few decades: The clash of a good, Earth-centered, nature-connected tribal group (Jaguar Paw's people) and the evils of a corrupt, ecology-despoiling "advanced" civilization... the sole (but key) difference this time being that the Big Bad City-Dwellers are the also-native Mayans instead of the usual Europeans.
The Mayans sack the Peaceful Village of the good guys, snatch up Jaguar Paw and anyone left standing (JP has managed to hide his son and very pregnant wife in a rocky crevase, promising to retrieve them) and march them off to the Capitol City as sacrifices. They are, we learn, themselves ravaged by plauge and famine which, the film argues, are larger symptoms of a civilization rotting from within. Gibson dwells on the gory pagentry of the Mayans in a showpeice central scene of heart-ripping, head-hacking temple sacrifice. He lingers on the details of a field of corpses or the gatuitous (but undeniably awesome from a veteran-gorehound stanpoint) effects of stone-age axes, spears and arrows on the human skull with an eye that resembles no other filmmaker so much as Ruggero Deodato, the infamous Italian exploitationeer who's "Cannibal Holocaust"-era lost-in-the-jungle madness Gibson appears to have absorbed wholesale into his growing repetoire of personal psychosis. (And for those who thought that there was no possibility that even the maker of "The Passion of The Christ" could find a way slip a crucifix into a movie about the ancient Mayans, well... you'll just have to see.)
By astonishing coincidence (a phrase that can describe more than half of the big scenes in the film, just for the record) JP escapes this fate and beats feet back to the wife and kids with a platoon of Mayan Soldiers on his heels. the film holds so rigidly to formula and often outright-cliche that, were it to crop up to this degree in almost any other context it would be nearly unforgivable: Jaguar Paw's people are set-upon and ravaged by the Mayans in a scene that mimics almost beat-for-beat it's analouges in "Conan the Barbarian," Gibson's own turn in "The Patriot," and pretty much every other movie that has used this same opening to this same story before. There's the Pre-Setup Benign Tool That Later Becomes A Crucial Weapon from "Straw Dogs," the Hero Clasps Trinket Of Dead Or Endangered Loved One For Strength from "Rambo," the One Vine Above The Quicksand from, well, from every jungle movie ever made, there's the Leap Of Fate From The Waterfall from... take your pick, really. But here, perhaps, such adherence to the familiar is important: In a film with no recognizable stars, language or even terrain for the majority of it's prospective audience, the formula serves as both an anchor and a portal through which said audience can enter and find footing.
Less easy to forgive is the fact that it's 2nd act is, literally, a ludicrous succession of Deus Ex Machina escapes for Jaguar Paw, as he's aided in his flight from the Mayans by everything from a solar eclipse to a handily-placed viper to an actual Jaguar... all of these mounting coincidences "excused" earlier by... no, I'm not making this up... a plauge-ridden little girl who appears to the Mayans hissing a symbolist prophecy of impending doom. No, really, that's actually what happens.
Let it not be said that Gibson doesn't have an eye for detail: I'm no historian, but the costuming and occutraments of the Mayan bad guys look authentic as hell to me, as does the functionality of their lethally-ingenious weaponry. And the film has great fun (and invites us to join in) showing off the way Jaguar Paw turns his forest surroundings into one big arms cache; lobbing beehive "grenades" at his foes and snatching up a brightly-colored frog to assist him in quickly preparing some poison darts. My personal favorite: A brilliant application of ants in the suturing of a wound. By now, in addition, he's a well-learned stager of action scenes, giving what is essentially a prolonged foot-chase the kinetic thrills of a high-speed pursuit, and he knows how to turn a rain storm into a mini-armageddon in it's own right. And while I've seen more than enough movie moments where childbirth complicates an already-raging action scene, I doubt I've ever seen it quite like this.
Putting aside, as best one is able, all the hangups and obsessions of it's maker (be they the ones screamed at police officers or the ones evident in the filmmaking) "Apocalypto" is a one-of-a-kind animal, and that in and of itself qualifies it as something you should seek out. It's as brilliantly-realized a work of mad, hell-bent genius as you're likely to see this year; an action movie with the energy of a madman... crafted by a onetime action movie-star who just might be one himself. Whether or not continued exposure to the deeper and darker corners of the Mind of Mel will be, in the long term, a learning experience or an ordeal for The Cinema as a whole remains to be seen, but this time... THIS time... it's yeilded something genuinely worthy of study.
FINAL RATING: 8/10