Touchstone Pictures // 2006 // 138 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // May 22nd, 2007
No one can outrun their destiny.
Love him or hate him or think he needs to be on sedatives daily, you have to admit, behind the camera, Mel Gibson's got skills. Exhibit A: Apocalypto, one of the most spectacular and thrilling movies I've seen this year.
The Mayan civilization is in its last throes and bearing witness to the ebbing away of an entire people is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, in his live-action film debut). Jaguar Paw and his family live a quiet existence in a village, nestled deep within the jungle. His wife is expecting their second son. He's got good fiends and a kick-ass dad and spends his days throwing spears into boars. It's a good life, but it's all about to come to a crashing end.
Without warning, a band of raiders storm the village, burn the huts and take the villagers captive. Jaguar Paw escapes their clutches in time to hide his wife and son in a deep pit. When he returns to the fight he too is taken prisoner and, along with his comrades, taken to a sprawling Mayan city, where a grisly fate awaits at the top of a sacrificial tower. For Jaguar Paw, all that matters is returning to his family, but to do so will take a profound amount of willpower, skill and cosmic luck.
It's pretty great to go into a movie not knowing really what to expect and end up getting socked in the face by its awesomeness. Such was the case with Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's latest, of which all I knew was a) it was about Mayans, b) there were subtitles and c) lots of folks get smoked by arrows and knives. When the film wrapped, I pointed at the screen and said "That movie was great," the gut reaction to being so thoroughly engaged and entertained for two hours and change. For the expectations I had, Apocalypto blew them up. Visually stunning with an immersive sound mix as I've ever heard, incredible production design, makeup and costuming, top-shelf acting and a story that races along as fast as Jaguar's Paw sprint through the jungle, this film has delivered the goods in a big, big way.
Apocalypto is essentially two kinds of films unified into one. Part one, which runs about 90 minutes or so, is a guided tour through the eye-popping world Gibson and his staff have crafted. Truly, the Mayan existence looks real and tangible, and it is obvious that painstaking detail upon painstaking detail had been poured into its creation. Part two is a straight-up chase movie, an intense, non-stop thriller that has enough bad-ass moments in it to wow even the most jaded action movie fan.
If the film doesn't float your boat, I suspect it would be first part that may turn you off. I admit: it takes its time. Following the village raid sequence -- which is exciting in itself -- Jaguar Paw and his pals are taken through the jungle in captivity, eventually landing in the Mayan city. The plotting is methodical, as Gibson gives you plenty of time to soak up the world through his lens and it really isn't until we get to the actual sacrifices that the intensity level picks up. Me, I got a supreme kick out of the "tour," mainly because there was so much stuff on display that I have never seen in a film before. Also, my personal Mayan databanks are fairly barren, so getting my learn on was an added bonus. However, I can certainly see where some folks may glance at their watches throughout this extended walk-about.
When the action kicks in -- and it kicks in hard -- I'm not sure if I could spend 12 consecutive seconds with a person that didn't think the movie rocked from that point forward. Without giving too much of the plot points away leading up to the action, Jaguar Paw finds himself free of his captors and on a mad dash through the jungle, focused on rescuing his wife and daughter from the pit and eluding a crack squad of pissed-off Mayan warriors who have good reason to see him flayed alive. What ensues is a massive amount of running, peppered with great stunts, man-on-beast action, and the wily ingenuity of a hunter as he dispatches his foes in increasingly excellent ways. Look, you hear the term "nonstop action" quite a lot, and I'm sure I've used it more than a few times in my own reviews, but this section of the film, flirting with an hour in its runtime, is as nonstop as I've seen; don't expect much down time when Jaguar Paw starts sprinting. The fruit: some of the most thrilling times I've ever spent with a film, ever.
As you likely know, all the dialogue in the film is delivered in the original Mayan, and though it may seem like a gimmick at first, I honestly can't envision Apocalypto as being half as effective without it. The Mayan tongue adds yet another layer of realism to the production and in such becomes even more enveloping as a film experience. Connected with that are the performances, which are across-the-board stellar, from Rudy Youngblood's Jaguar Paw, a desperate, exhausting performance to the menace of this pursuers. Direction, acting, editing, make-up, stunts, music, everything is top-shelf.
Last thing I want to address is the gore. There was a lot of talk about how gruesome the mayhem was, but call me a desensitized, violence-loving redneck, but I didn't find much of anything over-the-top in the film. There are some arrow hits and a spear or two through the gut and an impaling, but compared to, say, Mann's Last of the Mohicans, the violence was nothing special. In fact, I counted only two gratuitous moments: a spurting head wound and a jaguar face attack. Even the sacrifices were more implied than in your face. Still, don't see this with your toddlers.
As a DVD, Apocalypto is superb. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is absolutely gorgeous. The jungles thrive with rich colors, and the details, so integral to a film like this, burst with life. The sound mix is even more of a treat, with both the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital tracks pushing the channels hard. This DVD will surely earn a reputation as a reference disc.
A well-done 25-minute making-of feature dives into the sets, costumes, weapons and makeup. It really offers a taste of how much work went into pulling this endeavor off. Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia deliver a laid-back and insightful commentary. Finally, you get one deleted scene with optional commentary by Gibson and Safinia.
Come for the lessons of a civilization in its twilight, rotting from within and the stark reality of man's capacity for evil perpetrated against his fellow men and stay for one of the coolest, most innovative action films you'll ever see. Apocalypto is easily my favorite DVD release of the year so far.
Mayan for "not guilty."
Review content copyright © 2007 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Unknown)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Unknown)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Making-of Documentary
* Director's Commentary
* Deleted Scene
* Official Site