I hated Mel Gibson long before hating Mel Gibson was cool. In the early going, I liked him in Mad Max and in Gallipoli. I was tiring a bit of his smug machismo by the time he started grinding out Lethal Weapons, but it was Braveheart that really put me over the edge. Yes, the battle scenes were remarkable, even revelatory; but they could hardly compensate for the vainest self-directed performance ever by someone not named "Barbra Streisand," and for the movie's vicious, gratuitous homophobia. Gibson's thuggish preening was confirmed by his next film, Ransom, in which we were expected to applaud him for being the Worst Parent of All Time. But it was still a long and lonely decade to be a Mel hater before The Passion of the Christ and the passion of the drunk-driving anti-Semite made it something approaching conventional wisdom.
All of which is to say that I am not a person inclined to give Mel Gibson the benefit of the doubt as a director, actor, or human being. But while his latest film, Apocalypto, may not tell us much about the latter two categories, it confirms that, under the right circumstances, he is indeed a fiercely talented director. A primitive fable of victimhood and vengeance, enslavement and escape, Apocalypto is a minor masterpiece of cinematic bravado.
Set in the jungles of Central America, Apocalypto is a historic (or prehistoric) epic in spoken Mayan with English subtitles. It's an experiment that works better than Gibson's earlier foray into biblical Aramaic, for, unlike Jesus and his persecuters, the protagonists of Apocalypto are men (mostly) of action rather than words. Indeed, one could skip the dialogue altogether and miss very little of the story: Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is a member of a peaceful, Edenic tribe (as long as you're not a tapir) whose village is attacked by a raiding party that bears a suspicious resemblance to refugees from The Road Warrior. Those not killed are taken as slaves--including Jaguar Paw, though not before he hides his pregnant wife and toddler son in a well. The captives are marched to a Mayan metropolis (one of the more persuasive visions of Hell ever committed to celluloid) to be sacrificed to the gods. But Jaguar Paw escapes and flees homeward (the well in which he hid his family has an unfortunate tendency to flood when it rains) with a band of homicidal enforcers hot on his tail.
That's basically it. There are vanishingly few subplots or discursions (and those that exist are often dropped: The orphaned children of the village, for instance, are heartbreakingly portrayed at the beginning of the film and then essentially forgotten; wouldn't they have gone back to the village and found Jaguar Paw's wife?) Yet despite its overlong, 139-minute runtime, Apocalypto goes by in a visceral rush of striking, if sometimes preposterous, imagery: the torch-wielding war party loping through the midnight jungle; the dust-coated mineworkers who recall the photographs of Sebastião Salgado; Jaguar Paw emerging from a pit of mudlike quicksand like an atavistic variation on Martin Sheen's jungle assassin in Apocalypse Now.
And blood, everywhere blood, red as lipstick, wet as a kiss. It is the essential element, the alpha and omega, the primeval fluid coursing through the veins of Gibson's film. It drips, it pools, it rushes; at one point it even sprays from a bashed-in skull with Pythonesque enthusiasm. Yet for all Gibson's sanguinary attentions, Apocalypto does not fetishize suffering. Though many characters are killed violently, the film does not linger over them. How could it? It has to keep pace with Jaguar Paw in his sprint across a leafy continent. If the thought of the occasional beheading or villain having his face chewed off by a jaguar upsets you, you may want to skip this movie. But it is not, thankfully, an exercise in cinematic sadism like The Passion.
The film has its flaws: Gibson's continued promiscuity with slow-motion; a jarring, deus ex machina conclusion, et cetera. But it is the rare epic in recent years that has a clear vision of what it wants to do and achieves it utterly. Gibson's primary flaws as a filmmaker--his vanity and tendency to bully--are both held in check, the first by his absence from the film, the second by its setting, a political context so distant from ours that it might as well be Middle Earth. (Yes, yes, I know it's about how great civilizations--hint, hint--rot from within rather than being conquered from outside. But this is a metaphor so abstracted as to be essentially meaningless.) What remains is Gibson's never-more-evident technical mastery and his remarkable sense of motion, both narrative and cinematic. It may be a simple film, even a simple-minded one, in terms of its structure and ideas. But it's a film that goes.
Moreover, as clearly as Apocalypto marks a technical evolution for Gibson, there are hints it may represent a moral one as well. As an actor and director, Gibson has long been obsessed with manliness. In Braveheart, in particular, he was so concerned with according himself every masculine virtue that he didn't realize some are incompatible: You can't be both forever faithful to your wife and a ladies man who gives the pretty princess the night of her life. More tellingly still, there were his foils in the film, the mincing gay caricatures whose sexual orientation was equated with weakness, self-indulgence, and stupidity. (Remember: We were expected to applaud--or at least snicker--when one of them was thrown from a window to his death.)
Early in Apocalypto, I cringed at the introduction of a subsidiary character, a hapless village-mate of Jaguar Paw's who was the butt of repeated jokes--including a primitive version of the Ben-Gay-in-the-jockstrap routine--for being unable to get his wife pregnant. Slope-shouldered, heavy set, his round face like a target for the world's abuse, he seemed primed to be another of Gibson's cautionary tales about unmanly men. But he's not. On the contrary, he is, after Jaguar Paw, the most likable character in the film; given the opportunity, he more than once proves himself a hero. It's a small thing, but where Mel Gibson is concerned I set the moral hurdle low. With Apocalypto, he clears it easily.
The Home Movies List: Underrated Action
- Rob Roy (1995). Arguably less an "action" film than a historical drama, though boasting one of the best swordfights ever committed to film. Scores lower than Braveheart on the I-wish-movies-were-more-like-football-games scale, but higher on almost every other. It is understated, humane, and textured, and the quiet tragedy that suffuses almost every frame of the film is considerably more affecting than Mel's rowdy martyrdom. Moreover, it's the rare film of its kind that finds space for a strong, central female role (a magnificent Jessica Lange) instead of using women, à la Braveheart, merely as mirrors to reflect back the male stars' inflated self images.
- The Peacemaker (1997). When this movie was widely panned upon release, it went a long way toward persuading me that any effort to make an even minimally straight, non-ironic action movie was doomed. Yes, Nicole Kidman as the head of an antiterrorist task force is a bit of a stretch. But George Clooney is in excellent form; there are a few very good action set pieces; and the villain--a sad, soulful Bosnian terrorist played by Marcel Iures--is a nice change from the sneering baddies who typically populate Hollywood. The major knock on the film was that it was put together from familiar parts, which is true enough. But given that 80 percent of Hollywood's attempts to come up with something new are awful--the hero can see into the future! The villain wants to crash the earth into the sun!--is this really such a bad thing?
- Ronin (1998). Like The Peacemaker, an effort to make an action movie not predicated on the hero's ability to leap out of an airplane with no parachute and survive. Robert DeNiro headlines and is entirely solid, but the greater pleasure is the deep and varied supporting cast: Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Michael Lonsdale. A throwback to the (often British) action films of the 1960s and '70s, it drags at moments, and the concluding voiceover is abominable. (Director's cut, please.) But it's a bouncy ride until then, featuring the most intense car chases since The French Connection.
- Serenity (2005). The directorial debut of pop genius Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel"), this big-screen adaptation of his "Firefly" series is the best space opera since the first two Star Wars movies and one of the most criminally neglected entertainments of the last decade. Had it been cursed with a gluttonous budget, a raft of "stars," and the requisite McDonalds tie-ins, it would have made a quarter-billion dollars. Instead, it made about a tenth as much--but is a much better movie for it.