Review: Apocalypto

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(A scene from the film).

About the best that can be said for Mel Gibson’s overblown Apocalypto is that at least it isn’t anti-Semitic.

A pretentious saga of Shakespearean proportions, it is set in pre-Columbian Mexico around 1517 AD, during the declining days of the Mayan Civilization. Though purporting to explore a litany of themes from revenge to rebirth to redemption, this messy, mythical tale is essentially a high-octane action flick masquerading as a cerebral costume drama.

Given that his previous movie grossed a half a billion at the box-office, Mel must have decided that it would be okay to ask his audience to endure another flick filled with dialogue in a dead language. However, The Passion of the Christ’s combination of Latin and Aramaic was tolerable because his built-in target audience didn’t really need the subtitles to follow his nearly literal interpretation of familiar Biblical passages from the Gospels. Unfortunately, Apocalypto amounts to more of a test of patience, since you’re definitely dependent on reading the translation of its obscure Mayan dialect to comprehend the play-by-play.

As the film unfolds, we’re introduced to its protagonist, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a noble brave who lives with his family in a community of peace-loving natives in the jungle on the Yucatan Peninsula. During the get acquainted portion of the picture, it is established that that this scantily clad hunter-gatherers like to tease and play practical jokes on each other.

For example, they are endlessly entertained by embarrassing a flaccid, butt-flapped fatso mercilessly about his erectile dysfunction issues to the point of absurdity. In addition, everybody joins in: his buddies, his mother-in-law, even a mischievous village elder who feigns sympathy only to trick him into applying an herbal remedy which scalds his loins and his wife’s mouth. Hah-hah.

Segueing abruptly from laughter to slaughter, Apocalypto interrupts their innocence irreversibly with the arrival of an army of plundering marauders looking for females to rape and for males to offer-up as human sacrifices to the gods. Just before he’s dragged off in a forced march to a Mayan metropolis, the quick-thinking Jaguar Paw lowers his young son and his very pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) into a Saddam-like rabbit hole hidden nearby, vowing to return to rescue them.

Upon the captives’ arrival in the ancient city, Jaguar and his comrades are body-painted in preparation for decapitation on a sky-high altar before the court of the king. Of course, our dashing hero somehow escapes, miraculously, and the chase is on.

Thus, begins his Ulysses-quality return trip home, a harrowing ordeal, where he must survive by his wits if he is ever to be reunited with his family. Fortunately, Jaquar not only has nine lives, but knows the forest intimately. So, nothing, neither poisonous snakes, quicksand, killer bees, blow guns, spears, knives, traps, arrows, nor a plunge over a waterfall, can deter him from his destiny.

More like an unapologetically violent video game than a history lesson, the bloodletting in Apocalypto pauses only briefly, sprinkling the screen with silly, off-color asides, and distracting allusions to other screen classics. But you have to wonder what Mel was thinking when he decided to have scenes such as a macho Mayan making his way through a busy thoroughfare, barking “I’m walking here!” ala Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy (1969).

Not a good sign when the most memorable moment of a fable set in the 16th Century has you reminiscing about Dustin Hoffman pounding on a cab in the middle of Broadway.

(1 Black Star). Rated R for profanity, graphic violence, female frontal nudity, and disturbing images. Running time: 134 minutes. Studio: Touchstone Pictures

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