In honor of the Apocalypse just past, my mother asked I take a look at Mel Gibson’s follow-up to The Passion. Otherwise I would’ve continued ignoring Gibson’s work, same as I ignore the work of most modern neo-Nazis. Even before his July 28, 2006 drunk driving arrest (and subsequent tirade against the “Fucking Jews”), I was well on my way to hating Mel and everything he represented. Afterward, he caused my feelings to calcify by joining the long line of celebrities forced to pay respects to the Great God Contrition. Because it’s not enough to spend multiple twenty-four-hour news cycles airing a celebrity’s dirty laundry – nowadays that celebrity must appear before one of the High Priests of the Interview (Diane Sawyer, in Gibson’s case) to publicly claim the laundry’s theirs, and that they’re sorry. Even when they aren’t. Especially when they aren’t. Look at O.J. Simpson. Or look at Mel, already blaming the alcohol for his foul mouth and lack of self-control.
“Even a couple of drinks, you know, you lose all humility, all … everything, and you just become a braggart and a blowhard.”
No, Mel, you “lose all humanity” and “become a braggart and a blowhard” after “even a couple of drinks, you know…” Some of us learn how to handle our shit when we’re out in public…even if we aren’t aging action heroes/heartthrobs with four Lethal Weapons to our name and a paparazzi army digging through our trash.
So I ignored Apocalypto when it first came out and for that I’m truly sorry. I can see what Gibson, through the haze of alcohol and 19th century conspiracy theories, wanted to do here, and find I like this movie much, much more than his three other directorial efforts. For one thing, Gibson’s not directing himself, which worked out well in Man without a Face but completely killed Braveheart. For another, Apocolypto has a story, with characters and a plot and stuff, putting it miles above The Passion – a snuff film that walked like a feature.
This, on the other hand, is an old-school action/adventure flick that walks like mid-2000s Torture Porn, combining elements of both into something more potent than either. It’s not transcendentally awesome…not even terribly original…but it manages to be what approximately 72% of similarly brainless Action Movies try to be: good.
Apcoalypto is the adventure of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a fine, upstanding citizen of a remote hunting village in the pre-Columbian jungles of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. After a day’s worth of Ominous Portents go ignored by his father (Morris Birdyellowhead), and one of the creepiest Creepy Dream Sequences this side of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Jaguar Paw wakes to find his village invaded by Maya on a slave-catching expedition. Stashing his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernández) and barely-walking son (Carlos Emilio Báez) in a nearby cave, Jaguar Paw makes a valiant but pointless stand, almost killing the slave-driver Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), who’ll be Our Villain for the remainder of the film. Proving it, Middle Eye kills Jaguar Paw’s father, forcing Our Hero to watch his dad bleed out in Gibsonian slow-motion. But at least that cave goes ignored for the duration of the massacre.
Frog-marched across a ravaged wasteland of clear-cut forests, limestone quarries and failed crops, Jaguar Paw reaches a Mayan city in the midst of long-term decline. Marked for sacrifice to the great god Kukulkan (“the feathered serpent,” whom the Aztecs knew as Quetzalcoatl and you can just call Q) he’s led to the top of a step pyramid and forced to watch the high priest cut out his friend’s still-beating hearts. Only the fastest solar eclipses in the history of Ever spares Jaguar Paw this fate (at the last possible moment, ‘natch) so he can escape The City, make his way back through The Jungle, and save his family before they starve…or before torrential rains flood their hiding place.
Most action movies keep their set-ups simple and their pay-offs as grandiose as possible. Apocalypto does the opposite. It’s first half is 100% Set-up and as grandiose as $121 million can make the last days of Mayan civilization. Its second half is a chase movie, served so straight-up it’ll make your eyes water with its potency. Back in his jungle, pursued by city dwellers with several axes to grind, Jaguar Paw utilizes his years of hunter-gathering knowledge to brutally dismember his kidnappers. And we cheer, as much – if not more – than we jeered the destruction of his village. It’s like a Paul Verhoeven film, except I doubt its commentary on the dual nature of story-violence is intentional. Because I still don’t want to give Gibson that much credit.
The film got most of its flack for portraying the Maya as bloodthirsty, slave-owning peasants incompetently ruled over by jade thugs who placated sun gods with human sacrifices. Scholars were quick to point out the Maya also presided over one of the most technologically and bureaucratically sophisticated civilizations in history. As if those two things were mutually exclusive. Their calendar-making prowess is well known; less so the fact they discovered the concept “zero” centuries before Europe stole it from the Arabs (who stole it from the Indians). While Charlemagne struggled to fill a room with literate Franks, the Maya maintained a whole class of scribes and the paper to keep them working. They used quicklime for mortar when most of the world still used clay.
Gibson and his co-writer Farhad Safinia (who met during The Passion‘s post-production) were quick to counter critics with, We know, but all this takes place during the Mayan civilization’s decline. As if they were the Roman Empire (the “great civilization” that pre-credit Will Durant quote’s referring to) which they weren’t. A better Old World analogue would be Ancient Greece: a smattering of self-contained city states, separated by vast wilderness and united only by a shared language and some cultural mythology. By the times this film depicts (quite obviously the 1500s), a rising power to the northwest, the Aztecs, had long-since combined the best of Maya culture with their own ideas, turning a disease-ridden marshland into the region’s major commercial trading center. The Maya had little interest in such things. Why go far afield when the jungle supplies your every need, from tress to limestone to other tribes you can haul back home as slaves? Of course, if the rains fail…and the slave tribes ally against you with some pack of hairy, cross-bearing ghost-faces, things can get troubling…
All of which is literally academic: this movie isn’t about the Maya any more than Star Wars (Episode IV- A New Hope) is about the Evil Galactic Empire. Apocalypto uses the Maya to set up the same dichotomy between corrupt cities and wholesome country living every American (by which I mean English-speaking citizens of Estados Unidos) should recognize. The people of Jaguar Paw’s village are all fun-loving hunter-gatherer types with nary a care in the world, beyond making babies and pulling practical jokes on their friends. The Maya are an “advanced civilization” engaged in all of civilization’s great projects, like raping (not show) and pillaging (show in all the loving detail I’d expect from the director of Braveheart) anyone less-organized than they.
This is a cheap, melodramatic conceit, sure…but it’s not one I really have huge a problem with, especially not after Braveheart, where cheap melodrama masqueraded as history. Also, Rudy Youngblood’s a much more charismatic screen presence than Gibson’s been since his Gallipoli days, which is great, since the film’s lives or dies on how much you connect to him and his so-universal-it’s-almost-meaningless plight. By the time we get to the ball court scene, we’ve spent an hour trudging through the jungles with Our Hero, and and are more than set for the concluding hour of literally non-stop action.
This is the point of Apocalypto, in so far as the film has one. We can have an interesting discussion about how much Gibson loves to make his protagonists suffer, but here the suffering’s tangential. More than that, Gibson loves action movies, a love he shared with his co-writer, Safinia. And because they so-loved action movies, they felt the need to, as Gibson said to Time magazine at the…um…time:
“shake up the stale action-adventure genre,” which he feels has been taken hostage by computer-generated imagery (CGI), stock stories and shallow characters.
And goddamnit, Mel…now that I’ve finally – FINALLY – found something we can agree on I think I hate you even more. Because…and my fingers want to rebel against me rather than type this, but…you were right. At least about action movies. And you’re even more right now in a post-Transformers world, where CGI, stock plots, and shallow characters are seen as prerequisites for success. Hell, if you’d kept your drinking and your bullshit conspiracy theories to yourself, you might’ve become the powerhouse action movie director of the decade…or at least made it big in Torture Porn. The Passion proved you were born to make that kind of crap. Kukulkan knows if you’d directed some of the Saw series those films might actually be interesting. Couldn’t be much worse.
Safinia gave an even better Mission Statement to the Washington Post:
“We wanted to update the chase genre by, in fact, not updating it with technology or machinery but stripping it down to its most intense form, which is a man running for his life, and at the same time getting back to something that matters to him.”
And as far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished. Take a bow, the both of you, because you guys up and did it. Save for stone-age level weaponry (bows, arrows, flint knives, stone axes, frog-poisoned darts) – which is quite capable of fucking someone up – the only technology’s behind the camera. There sits Gibson, throwing in all the tricks he can: slow motion, speed ramping, handheld shots, grand Panavision rigs that let him dangle cameras over waterfalls. Anything to liven up the chase. It’s like a remake of Run Lola Run set in the 16th century Yucatan. Except there’s no time manipulation, so our hero has only one chance to get things right. That he will is far from a forgone conclusion. Of his three previous films, only one had anything close to a happy ending. It’s as if Gibson’s making up for all the happy endings in his acting career by directing movies that focus on “penitential suffering” (his words).
So Apocalypto can pass for good. Might even be able to see greatness if it climbed up on its roof and squinted. But that’s a big If. Gibson criticizing other films for “shallow” characters makes me think about glass houses. Apocalypto‘s dramatic elements are fairly predictable, verging on trite, and it’s action beats are only surprising for their absence from the last…let’s say “ten” years of action cinema. When Jaguar Paw got to the waterfall I couldn’t help wondering, Is that the same waterfall from Predator? There’s a bit during the climax when I shouted, “Really, Mel? Fucking really?” at the TV. And like most people of a certain age, I’ll never see a still-beating heart ripped from someone’s chest without thinking of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
But all these are minor complaints that kept this from being a great movie while doing nothing to stop it being good. If you want a slick, low tech, bare-bones action movie that takes place in a world rarely seen (save by those who live there still today), you could do a lot worse than Apocalypto. And now that we know the whole “Mayan apocalypse” thing was bullshit there’s plenty of time to see this film. There may even be time to internalize its lessons and try to do what it does even better. What can I say? Another apocalypse just amounted to a whole lot of nothing, so I’m feeling about as hopeful as I ever feel.