The second of Mel Gibson’s ‘dead language’ films (if he were making Braveheart now, would it be in some sort of proto-gaelic/Olde Englishe argot?) gets to virgin historical territory (the only other pre-conquistador Mayan movie I can think of is Kings of the Sun, though there’s a surprisingly measured examination of the culture in an early Doctor Who serial, ‘The Aztecs’) but cannily plays out as a 1980s-style action film (quite a bit of the plot is the same as First Blood) with non-stop running and extreme gore. Given that Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ also dwell gruesomely on primitive methods of torture and execution but manage to sell themselves as uplifting, Oscar-worthy pictures for the carriage trade, there’s no reason that this enjoyable, exciting, intermittently silly film shouldn’t click too.
We open with a tapir hunt in the rainforest and tribal knockabout that deftly sketches happy tribal characters – wise if ageing chief Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), his impetuous but incipiently heroic son Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and big buffoon Blunted (Jonathan Brewer). These are developed in rudimentary form: there’s something very Gibsonesque about the lowbrow mockery inflicted on the good-natured Blunted, who is ridiculed for not getting his wife pregnant and duped into several disgusting or painful fertility treatments; and few film families are as idealised as Jaguar Paw’s lovely pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez, with fewer facial piercings than the rest of the tribe) and cute young son. An encounter with another tribe fleeing through the territory, a local tale-teller’s fable about the greed of man and an ominous nightmare tip us off that Bad Things are about to come. The idyllic if primitive village is invaded by ‘Holcane Warriors’, a marauding tribe of slave-takers with far more extreme bone-piercings, tattoos and part-shaved hairstyles (in Gibson’s filmography, they might have come from Mad Max 2). Mrs Jaguar Paw is trapped in a hole for the rest of the film and a lot of extras are bloodily slaughtered. Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), the nastiest of the invaders, murders Flint Sky in front of his defiant son, whom he renames ‘Almost’, while Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), the senior raider, is more concerned with getting his catch to market.
After a gruelling Tarzan-movie slog through jungle and river, and an encounter with a disease-ridden little girl who utters prophecies about the coming apocalypse (er, apocalypto), the captives are brought into a disorienting Mayan city where some are sold as slaves but most get daubed with blue and hustled up a step-pyramid. Here, grotesque Royals watch a fiendish High Priest (Fernando Hernandez) ripping out the hearts of a succession of sacrifices and then choppings off their heads (which bounce down the pyramid to big cheers) to appease the god Kukulkan in an attempt to stave off the famine and plague which are on the verge of toppling Mayan civilisation. As with a surprising number of primitive sacrifices in everything from King Solomon’s Mines to Hergé’s Prisoners of the Sun, an eclipse is taken as a sign from the Gods to end the carnage – but the High Priest tells Zero Wolf to get rid of rather than free the intended victims (which suggests he isn’t even sincere in his belief in the bloodthirsty gods) and the remaining tribesfolk are set to be killed for practice in a brutal game that evokes Drums Along the Mohawk, The Naked Prey, Too Late the Hero or even The Most Dangerous Game. They have to run across a stretch of open ground, with the warriors shooting spears and arrows at them. Jaguar Paw gets away, wounded, into the cornfield beyond and then the jungle. While escaping, Jaguar Paw kills Zero Wolf’s indulged son and so the whole band of warriors follow the one hero.
Now, the film sheds its ethnographic and historical pretensions to get on with almost serial-style jungle action, involving much run-through-the-jungle stuff, an angry jaguar, plunges over a fabulous waterfall, an obsessive pursuer who kills his own men to make a point, pungee-style deathtraps, well-deserved come-uppances for the most hateful baddies, and a hero who can take any wound. We even cut away to his wife in her hole, filling up with water during a rainstorm and giving birth during the crisis. The punchline, inevitably, has Jaguar Paw chased onto a beach by the last warriors only to be awed by the sight of the first Spanish ships arriving and a pile of stern-looking conquistadors and priests coming ashore to bring about the ruin of the whole Mayan society. Jaguar Paw and his immediate family survive and resolve to go deeper into the jungle (ie: grabbing a personal happy ending amid the gloom) while the apocalypse levels the entirely corrupt civilisation. Unfashionably, Gibson seems to be arguing that some indigenous cultures were just so appalling that they deserved everything that happened to them when Westerners turned up. Gibson has never been a subtle director, but Apocalypto has fewer of the pretensions which make Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ as enervating as they are impressive. It may fall back on hoary old business like repeated escapes from certain death, but the basic, primal story situations (these baddies are bad in a way that’s been impossible in films almost since the silent era) and a pulse-pounding pace which makes two and a quarter hours speed by undeniably add up to value for money.