Welcome to the jungle. A place where pierced savages josh and jest as they rip the flesh of a freshly speared boar. Life is simple, life is good, but trouble is hiding in the undergrowth and young family man Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is about to go on a tortuous journey of bloodshed and fear.
First things first. Whatever you have read, Apocalypto has no underlying ecological message, or historical validity - it’s simply a chase movie, something akin to Ted Kotcheff’s Rambo: First Blood played out in Mayan fancy dress.
Like Mel Gibson’s last two films as director (The Passion of the Christ, Braveheart), Apocalypto is positively beholden to the violent set pieces that make up a large part of its excessive running time. The difference here is that Gibson has a good guide in producer and writer Farhad Safinia with whom he previously worked (ironically) on US TV family comedy Complete Savages (which is still, if ever, to reach these shores, probably with good reason). Gibson’s penchant for laborious elaboration and spectacle, here seems tempered by a desire to tell a more intimate tale. The result is enthralling; things hurtle along as a handful of slaves become one savage on the run. Gibson is very good at violence (good, old fashioned slow motion is certainly his forte) but he is even better at borrowing from the best.
Obvious comparisons to Boorman’s Deliverance and Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort aside there are some impressively dynamic borrowings here, from Franklin J Shaffner’s Planet of The Apes, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, Apocalypse Now, Alexandro Jodorowsky’s Sante Sangre and of course from his old mate George Miller’s Mad Max 2: Road Warrior. Veteran Aussie capadre cinematographer Dean Semler (We Were Soldiers, The Alamo, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) gives everything a commendable epic sheen, but ultimately this is guided by Gibson’s desire to create a boy’s own fantasy for the 21st Century. Apocalypto is so rich in the clichés of classic adventure literature (life saving eclipses, waterfall jumps, quicksand traps etc) and the kind of archaic ballsy facts young gentlemen used to be able to lap from the pages of Look and Learn that the whole thing feels positively old fashioned.
The truth is no descendent of a Latin American tribesperson will recognise this broad facsimile of their forefather’s culture but that hardly seems the point. Gibson, like all good assimilated Americans, believes that actions will always speak louder than words and that ultraviolence is a much better option than meditation. What he did for feeble-minded Scotsmen back in 1995 he has now done for the populous of his adopted country with Apocalypto.
General release from Fri 5 Jan.