It begins with something never before seen in a movie: a chase sequence shot from the viewpoint of a tapir. It's the long-rumored technological advance of tapir-vision! As the desperate tapir runs through the jungles of Guatemala, I assumed that we would shortly see it being chased by a group of hungry Jews.
But instead, the tapir is being chased by a group of 16th-century Guatemalan hunters. And this is where we first see that Apocalypto, unlike virtually every other film, has a sophisticated, non-condescending view of Native Americans. Instead of portraying them as humorless, noble savages who have Something Important to Teach Us About the Earth, it shows them laughing, having troubles with their mothers-in-law and goofing around with a monkey: you know, just like ordinary people do.
One of the best bits involves a great performance by Jonathan Brewer as a hunter named Blunted whose compatriots trick him into eating tapir testicles as a practical joke. This is the moment when Mel displays his sophisticated comedic sense. Think about it: A guy eating buffalo balls is frat-boy humor. A guy eating tapir balls? Genius.
The film is helped by the fact that the Native Americans are not played by Arquettes and Baldwins in red-face makeup. Instead, Gibson got actual native people, most of whom had never been in a film before. Actually, that may account for why they're so good: If you assume that an average individual has about a 35 percent chance of being able to act, and then compare that to the hand-selected sample of Hollywood actors, it would seem that you'd do better grabbing people off the street rather than hiring Tara Reid, Nicole Kidman and Keanu Reeves.
While the sophistication of the acting and characterizations are notable enough, where Apocalypto excels is in the pace and plotting. This is an action movie of the rarest kind: one that's neither stupid nor boring.
It kicks into high gear when a group of Mayan raiders sweep into the sleepy little hunting village, slaughtering and taking prisoners. It turns out they work for a king who wants to use the imprisoned villagers in the way that George Bush uses Iraqis: as human sacrifices to advance his political career.
A tense sequence wherein the prisoners are marched through the jungle leads to one of the most gorgeously photographed and constructed sets I have ever seen: a re-creation of an ancient Mayan city. Every aspect of it is splashed with color and debauchery and an alien quality, showing an imaginative force one would not normally expect from a blustering, alcoholic anti-Semite.
While the sets are archaeologically correct, much of the historical accuracy of the film has been debated. From what I can tell, Apocalypto's history is a bit muddled, but that hardly seems the point. This is not a PBS documentary, but rather an example of the action film as art form.
This becomes most apparent in an extended sequence where 11 Mayan soldiers chase one of the hunters through the forest for two days. It's sort of a cross between Bullitt, The Most Dangerous Game and Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and it mixes edge-of-your-seat excitement (and as a critic, I swore I would never use the phrase "edge-of-your seat," so you have to seriously believe me when I say that this is edge-of-your seat stuff) with the cinematographic sensibility of a young Werner Herzog.
It also features great action-star acting by Rudy Youngblood as the hunted hunter Jaguar Paw. He manages to combine fear, desperation and in-your-face defiance (and as a critic, I swore I would never use the phrase "in-your-face," so you have to seriously believe me when I say this is in-your-face stuff), all while speaking an ancient Mayan language.
Seeing as Gibson's been selling this as a message film, its appearance as a thriller was unexpected. Sure, there's a message in the middle of the action, something to the effect of "empires collapse from within" or "when you start sacrificing human beings, you need to rethink your general political ideology," but it's thinly presented, which is best, because it doesn't interfere with the drama. Instead, it provides a justification for it. Good. It's not like we desperately need any more message movies (pardon me while I buy some blood diamonds from a fast-food restaurant while recounting my painful childhood). Instead, it's a work of art in the form of a rapidly moving, perfectly photographed tale of violence, revenge and escape.
Apocalypto takes the sensibility of the movies that Gibson has acted in (Mad Max, Lethal Weapon, Hamlet's Lethal Weapon and Gallipolethal Weapon) and dresses it up in a level of smarts, precision and directorial know-how that far exceeds the crime-flicks and thrillers that it draws from. In spite of the fact that it's easy to say bad things about Mel Gibson (apparently, he overly enjoys aperitifs and holds incorrect and offensive opinions about a certain ethno-religious group), he simply can't be faulted as an artist. Apocalypto is one of the best films of the year, and by far the best of Gibson's directorial career.