If we know one thing about Mel Gibson from the films he directs—he is not a fan of subtlety. Gibson likes to hammer the point home—literally. It doesn’t matter if the subject is 13th century Scots battling for independence, Jesus being crucified for two straight hours or Mayan villagers running through the jungles—you can count on Gibson to go the extra mile so you get the point, or at the least see some brutal violence.
I don’t really have a problem with that as I think Gibson is a talented man (who I admit might have problems with booze or Jews etc that I’m not going into here) and makes entertaining movies. I just wish sometimes he’d pull back just a little and not feel the need to pummel his audiences over and over and over. I am sophisticated enough to not need a jolt repeatedly to get the message. There’s always so much brutality that it becomes numbing at some point in his films.
That said, I really liked Apocalypto and am quite surprised to write that sentence. At its heart it is a survival tale, a family survival tale about a group of Mayan jungle dwellers attacked by a ferocious horde of city dwelling Mayans to be enslaved or Lord knows what once they get to where they will be taken to. They want to stay where they are that’s for sure. Gibson spends the early part of the film establishing the village life and the attack from outsiders but it is the last hour of the film that is truly special.
The extended chase through the jungle as Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) attempts to get back to his village is an exhilarating rush of suspense, thrills and violence (and a little hard to believe but hey, it's a movie). The thick green jungle is both gorgeously lush and filled with danger as Jaguar Paw uses his hunting skills to attempt to get away from this band who chase after him.
Gibson can claim this is a film about the dying Mayan culture and whatnot but that’s just bollocks. Apocalypto is what it is, a very rousing action adventure, survival tale that is both gruesome and suspenseful. There’s nothing wrong with that as it’s a visceral ride that he takes us on but the film has little to do with larger scale Mayan culture as I was led to believe when the film came out. Had I known it was just a straight up action adventure and survival tale I’d likely gone to see it in the theatre.
Apocalypto was a pleasant surprise to me, as I liked it much more than I thought despite Gibson’s urges to go full bore with grisly violence. I’d like to see him try a romantic comedy or something but I’m guessing he’d weaken at some point and have one of the characters get their skull bashed in or toss in a lovely torture scene. I’m not sure Gibson can resist no matter what the film.