STUDIO: Touchstone
MSRP: $29.99
RUNNING TIME: 136 Minutes
• Commentary by: Director Mel Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia
Becoming Mayan: Making Apocalypto
• Deleted scene with optional commentary by director Mel Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia

The Pitch

“Mel Gibson’s making another subtitled, graphically violent flick about an ancient people? As long as he doesn’t insult the whole Jewish race in the process, we can’t lose!”

The Humans

Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernández, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Báez

The Nutshell

Life couldn’t get any sweeter for young Mayan hunter Jaguar Paw. He’s got a cute kid, a perpetually topless wife, a village full’a quirky characters, and all the tapir meat you’d ever care to eat. Course, seeing everything go right for him would make for a pretty gay movie, so naturally his village is destroyed, his wife and child put in peril, and he himself is captured by a group of blood-sacrifice-loving Mayan warriors. Suck sandwich, anyone?

Umm…not if you’ve seen First Blood. ‘Cause apparently Jaguar Paw has, and he goes against his captors in ways that would make John Rambo stand up and beg for buttermilk.

"Smile like you mean it…"

The Lowdown

Anybody here familiar with The Prowler?

If not, that’s not a big deal—it’s a cheapo slasher flick from 1981 that starred Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger, of all people, and focused on a WWII-fatigue-wearing psychopath butchering randy teens in a small New Jersey town. As ‘80s horror flicks go, it’s not particularly well-made or memorable; I guess there’s just something less intrinsically frightening about a WWII vet with a grudge than Freddy or Jason. Now, if Freddy or Jason were disturbed veterans…

And yet, I find myself thinking about a mostly forgotten slasher pic in order to discuss Martin Riggs’…I mean, Mel Gibson’s controversial, forty-million dollar Mayan-themed followup to The Passion of the Christ. I know, it seems like a reach, but run with me for a bit, and I’ll try to clarify the matter.

You see, the one thing that The Prowler is even remotely noted for these days is its unbelievably over-the-top and splattery gore effects. FX god Tom Savini did the honors, so it should be no surprise they’re good, but for my money he outdid himself with this one; there’s this amazing scene where the killer stabs a guy through the top of his head that really must be seen to be believed. The interim (read: non-bloody) scenes of character development and exposition are as flat and tedious as I’ve ever seen in a slasher flick, but brother, the gore effects are beautiful. As a result, the flick exists solely to showcase Savini’s work, and in a funny way, I think the same exact situation occurs with Apocalypto: you got a routine, bland story punctuated by moments of incredible bloodletting. Brutal impalements. A snake bite to the throat. Spurting cranial damage. Multiple scenes of grisly, ritual sacrifices. And, in the flick’s splattery piece de resistance, a jaguar and his teeth accomplishing in ten seconds what took Nicolas Cage and John Travolta 140 minutes in Face/Off. For gorehounds, Apocalypto is a bit of the old manna from heaven.

"Because your kiss (Your Kiss!) is on my lips. Because your kiss (Your Kiss!) I can’t resist…"

Problem is, this should not be. I mean, after month of month of drunken Jew-bashings, worries over fidelity to Mayan history and culture, and rumors of Apocalypse Now-level shooting catastrophes, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is unleashed on the viewing public to great controversy, and it’s akin to a third-rate Friday the 13th flick? No. I call bullshit. What exacerbates things is that all the elements were in place to make a great movie. Ancient Mayan culture has never really been examined satisfactorily in American cinema, and you can tell that it really fascinated Mel; everything, from character makeup to ancient rituals to city life, is painstakingly detailed on camera. It’s the main strength of the movie. When it’s working, and at times it comes on like gangbusters, you really can get lost in his depiction of the Mayan culture (in a good way). The quiet, lyrical early scenes in Jaguar Paw’s village. The virtuoso middle section that takes you deep inside the great Mayan city. The gruesome and powerful depictions of ritual sacrifice. If the whole flick was a Nashville-like mosaic of this world, I’d be a happy boy.

But it’s not.

Despite the atmosphere, this is conventional, commercial filmmaking at its most rite and predictable. Take the gore of The Prowler and mix it with all the action movie tropes of a film like First Blood, and you’ve pretty much got this one dead-to-rights. I remember hearing a lot of complaints about the creepy disease-stricken girl who basically lays out the whole rest of the movie in detail at the halfway point, but anyone remotely familiar with the First Blood-style action movie will know where the movie’s going long before it gets there. It’s not only boring, but wasteful—why spend so much obvious research and time on the cultural and tribal trimmings just to have them serve a predictable, run-of-the-mill actioner? It just feels like Mel’s exploiting Mayan culture to elevate his own limited aims as a filmmaker, and that just don’t sit well with me.

Even a technical level, his work is sub-par. Much of the action feels schizophrenic; you got jerky, shaky-cam heavy action scenes as well as action beats that don’t move fast enough and would benefit from some impact-focused editing. And the whole thing looks like ass regardless. I’m a huge supporter of High-Def camerawork, but Dean Semler’s work with the Genesis camera on this film is often ugly to look at. The relatively narrow frame (1.85:1 widescreen) denies the flick an epic expanse and grandeur a wider aspect ratio could give it, the shot compositions are uninspired at best, and the look is muddy and smeary at times, like bad VHS. Maybe that was Mel’s intent, to give the flick a rough, documentary-like look, but it contrasts poorly with the lushness of the jungle, and it certainly doesn’t have the harsh beauty of the High-Def work in a film like Miami Vice. It looks like amateur hour, which is jarring considering how good The Passion of the Christ looked. Say what you will about that one’s content, but there’s no denying the gorgeous, painterly visual qualities that Mel and DP Caleb Deschanel brought to the table there. Also, for a flick that, at its heart, wants to be a lean and mean little chase picture, it is in dire need of cutting. This runs 136 minutes when 90 would do; the initial captured-slave march through the jungle is interminable, as is much of the footage detailing the struggle of Jaguar Paw’s wife and son.

"Well, I can feel it, comin’ through the air tonight. Oh Lord…"

But those are small potatoes compared to Mel’s biggest misstep: there’s no passion, no feeling, behind this flick. I hate Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. I find them highly offensive, filled with crude characterizations and suspect moralizing. Braveheart falsely elevates the contributions of a folk hero while managing to work in some anti-homosexual sentiments, and The Passion of the Christ blends both torture porn and Anti-Semitism into a cocktail that’d give Josef Mengele and Eli Roth a hard-on. But they’re exciting, dammit, and for better or worse, you can feel Mel’s heart in every fucking frame. I just don’t get that feeling here. Like I said, it’s too paint-by-the-numbers, using blood and guts to try and distract us from noticing there’s not much else of value going on. Part of me can’t blame the man; despite their respective successes, his earlier films alienated a lot of people, and maybe he saw in Apocalypto a chance to make something more accessible and less polarizing thematically. Still, part of me would rather feel strongly about a movie, for good or ill. I felt that with Braveheart. I felt that with The Passion of the Christ. I don’t feel that here. Mel half-heartedly tacks on some anti-fear mongering and pro-environmentalist leanings, as well as a sloppy and last minute attempt at contextualizing Jaguar Paw’s adventures in the whole scheme of the white man’s oppression of the Mayans, but it’s all too little, too late.

At the end of the day, Apocalypto feels like wasted time, and the result is definitely the least of anything Bloody Mel’s has ever directed, and that’s including The Man Without A Face (especially the director’s cut, which has the Feral Child aiding Mel and Nick Stahl in their struggle against the Humongous).

"People are people so why should it be that you and I get along so awfully…"

The Package

The sound rightly kicks ass. It’s subtle when it needs to be, bombastic otherwise, and captures the ambient jungle sounds perfectly. Can’t fault it none. The picture, as I’ve alluded to earlier, isn’t that great. Static, bright daytime scenes look best, while everything in motion and/or darkness suffers from varying degrees of craptitude. I don’t blame the disc—the flick looked crappy in theaters, and it looks crappy here on DVD. I do like the box art, what with Jaguar Paw fleeing his captors in shadow, but the tagline, “No One Can Outrun Their Destiny,” is extremely misleading.

This is a lean disc for special features. The commentary with Gibson and Farhad Safinia is pretty generic, “Oh, I like this scene, the weather was like this on this day…” babble. For a movie with the kinda history this one has, we don’t get much backstory on its controversial elements or why Mel chose it. It’s Average Commentary 101, further proof of Mel’s lack of passion. The documentary fares better, as we get lots of behind the scenes footage and learn some interesting tidbits (the actors had their footwear CGI’ed out? Neato!), but it’s a hare too masturbatory in its praise of the cast and crew. Finally, there’s a useless deleted scene showing a deer burned during Jaguar Paw’s capture.

I’m an atheist Jew, and I’d soon watch Mel condemn my people for two hours and five minutes in The Passion than watch this one again. Apocalypto is tired, predictable, and leaves you with a slight headache and burning sensation on your rear end afterwards. In that regard, it’s just like my ex-girlfriend…

"Yes, I’m stuck in the middle with you. And I don’t know what it is I should do…"

3.2 out of 10