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Judge Bill Gibron • Location: Tampa, FL
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Jungle Boogie
December 16th, 2006 2:54PM

Has any film arrived with more nonsensical and non-cinematic baggage as Apocalypto? Granted, Mel Gibson is a notorious nimrod, using the excuse of alcohol-fueled diarrhea of the mouth to cover for what is probably a deep-seated hatred for people outside his religion/race comfort zone. But what his personal philosophy about his fellow man has to do with a movie about South American tribes at the end of their reign as civilized societies is a mystery made even more untenable by the media. Like any major superstar and for a while, no one was bigger than the slightly manic Mel the building of a celebrity is only half the press's process. Dragging them back down the stairway of eminence makes up the second section of fame's cyclical nature. If we are to assume that Gibson is at the bottom he did go through a real rough patch there, and really hasn't pulled his over the hill ass out of the fire quite yet- then this film is a fine first step back into moviemaking meaningfulness. Will it wipe away the cloud of the lingering Anti-Semitic controversy? No. Does it indicate that some artists can successfully separate their craft from their convictions? You bet!

Unlike the ra-ra ridiculousness of Braveheart, or the subjective snuff film reverence of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson gives the audience a break here, creating what is, in essence, a thriller throwback to the days of simply storytelling and full force physical action. This is not a plodding post-modern blockbuster with all manner of metaphysical miscues messing up the stunt work. No, in a script that is elegant in its stereotypical ease, Gibson creates good guys (Jaguar Paw's jungle dwelling tribe) and unbelievable bad guys (the completely corrupt and de-evolving Mayans) and puts them at odds inside a beautiful, bloody epic. Argue over his skill with narrative or characterization, but no one can doubt Gibson's gift behind the lens. There are shots in Apocalypto that will literally take your breath away, moments where you wonder aloud if this is the natural beauty of a practical location, a purely CGI spectacle, or a clever combination of the two. In particular, there's a moment during Jaguar Paw's last act escape where he winds up in a pit of headless corpses. Colored a dire, dreary gray by the surrounding mud, the bodies form a kind of corrupt canvas, as perfect a painting of pain and horror as the visual medium has to offer.

As for the performances, it is hard to challenge or criticize them. Texan Rudy Youngblood is very good in the leading role, though he tends to have less of the detailed physical maladies (bad teeth, body scars) as given to his equally impressive co-stars. Naturally, there's a villain, and Gibson does a very smart thing when it comes to his bad guys. He divides up the evil, making main leader Zero Wolf (played by Raoul Trujillo) a far more focused heavy. Snake Ink, on the other hand, is like a pre-Columbian Simon LeGree. Face forming a constant snarling smirk, actions always poised on the precipice of outright psychosis, newcomer Rodolfo Palacios seems to be channeling every old fashioned rogue in the action movie manual. He is cruel, sadistic, slimy, sarcastic, uncontrollable and completely without redeeming qualities. At least Zero Wolf has a son that he dotes on, a bit of outside emotion that foreshadows a fatal event that drives the Mayans to make Jaguar Paw public enemy numero uno. It is safe to say that, thanks to the use of an ancient language and subtitles, the personalities all seem to merge and meld into a kind of collective clan. It is only via easily remembered art design elements, and individual idiosyncrasies that we end up with certain specific types.

While it may be bereft of real emotion as much as we like Jaguar Paw, we don't really feel the connection between he and his pregnant mate there is no doubting Gibson's ability to showboat and inspire. The entire trip through the mad Mayan city, filled with touches both natural and otherworldly, creates the kind of sociological science fiction that any good period piece can provide. We want to be transported to a world we've never experienced, believe in the validity of the varying little details that make up the magical whole. For all his flaws as a human being, his history as a man both married to and marred by his convictions, Mel Gibson should never be doubted as a moviemaker. Apocalypto may not be one of the best movies of the year, but it surely stands shoulder to shoulder with those exceptional efforts of 2006 at least from an artistic perspective. Besides, what's the better legacy to have hanging around your neck an undeniably dense anger toward people of a certain persuasion, or the ability to make startling cinematic statements? Gibson should be happy that, for now, outer vision has overcome inner vileness.

8 ouf ot 10

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