EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Though Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (*** out of ****) is better than Blood Diamond by a considerable margin, both share the same flaw: they're both Hollywood at the core, in spite of its pretensions toward message-movie importance---in the case of Blood Diamond---or visionary, Werner Herzog-like grandeur, as in the case of Apocalypto.
In the film---which is entirely in the Mayan language---the hero, Jaguar Paw (an impressive Rudy Youngblood), turns out to be a fairly typical Hollywood action-movie hero who experiences fairly typical action-movie hero emotions and goes through fairly typical action-movie hero challenges. He's a kindhearted family man who cares for his pregnant wife, his kid, and the rest of his tribesmen---so much so that when his tribe gets attacked by invaders who destroy the village, rape the women and take the men as prisoners, Jaguar Paw feels the need to go back to try to help his fellow men after he has lowered his wife and child to safety in a hole in the ground. Jaguar Paw gets kidnapped, and thus we are treated to scenes where we see the "bad guy" invaders treat his fellow tribesmen badly---it may not be entirely mustache-twirling villainy, but it comes pretty close. Then we find out the reason they've been captured: the invaders want to sacrifice them to their Sun God in order to appease Him and relieve them of their troubles with crops and such. Of course, Gibson isn't afraid to show us the sacrifice of two poor Mayans before it's Jaguar Paw's turn, but this time the effect of the bloodletting isn't, as was the case in The Passion of the Christ, for a kind of perverse, spiritually-transcendent realism: it seems more like the usual Hollywood way of increasing our bloodlust before our hero eventually shows these antagonists who's boss.
Let me try to avoid exaggerating, however, because, while some have called Gibson a sensationalist in his approach to onscreen violence, I think he's a lot more mature and intelligent about the violence he presents than many people give him credit for. I just saw The Passion of the Christ for the first time recently (I know, I know, way too late), and I was surprised to see Gibson cutting away from violence perhaps more often than he shows us actual gore---and sometimes, when he does show us blood, he does it for poetic effect (when Jesus gets a nail through his hand towards the end of the film, there is a cut to a shot underneath the cross where we see blood dripping down the nail in slow motion as if they were crimson tears). In many instances in The Passion, the claims of the film's being "the most violent movie ever" seem once again to be the case of people projecting more graphic violence in the film than is actually shown (although don't get me wrong: The Passion can hardly be considered restrained when it comes to violence). You get some of the same stuff in the first half of Apocalypto: when those two poor Mayans get sacrificed, you hear the gruesome noises but don't actually see the violence being inflicted, only its aftermath and others' pained reactions.
In that respect, the second half of the movie---which is essentially an extended chase sequence as Jaguar Paw escapes death and runs around in the jungle trying to elude the clutches of a vengeful invader Mayan as he desperately tries to get back to his wife and child, still trapped in that hole in the ground---disappoints slightly because it devolves into a beautifully-shot, exotic version of a Rambo movie, in which the violence Gibson depicts onscreen occasionally seems intent on satisfying a Hollywood-bred yearning in us viewers to see the villains get theirs. I could imagine one ultimately dismissing Apocalypto as a whole because, apart from the historic setting and its mythmaking pretensions, the film is essentially a Hollywood action movie in structure and even in some of its technique.
I won't go that far, though; Mel Gibson is simply too good a filmmaker craft-wise to take an all-or-nothing critical approach, the way a lot of critics seemed to do two years ago when The Passion of the Christ crashed onto the movie landscape and became a major point of controversy. Perhaps it was a bit myopic to simply focus on the punishment Jesus received in the last 12 hours of his life (before he was resurrected, of course) instead of focusing on the spiritual teachings that made him so revered and feared by many. But hey, it's not like Gibson simply ignored the spiritual side (through his ordeal, Jesus does receive quite a bit of sympathy from his fellow men): he expressed it almost entirely through imagery, some of it positively horrific, almost all of it genuinely moving---at least, I thought it was. Gibson may have Hollywood encoded into his DNA---thus his rather adolescent fascination with violence and brutality in his films---but he clearly is trying to say something about violence, not just indulging in it for shock value. And, if you pay careful attention to the way he approaches the violence in his films, I think one will come to the same conclusion: this isn't just violence for kicks.
Apocalypto---just as much as either The Passion of the Christ or his Oscar-winning 1995 film Braveheart---is clearly the product of one passionate filmmaker's vision, even if that vision can be said to be Neanderthal or trivial or simply not as grand as he intends. But let's not downplay the real cinematic intelligence at work here, and let's certainly not use the film as an opportunity to trash Gibson in light of his recent unfortunate public notoriety.
Besides, perhaps there is a difference to this film than to the traditional violent Hollywood action flick: even when Jaguar Paw is mowing down his enemies in the second half of Apocalypto, there isn't quite the same gleeful attitude toward bloody violence than there is in, say, a Renny Harlin bloodbath (Cliffhanger, anyone?). Jaguar Paw himself seems to be losing his own humanity the closer he gets to his destination (thus the images of him stalking around like a jaguar coated in black). (SPOILER ALERT) Only when, at the very end, he glimpses the Spanish conquistadors who are about to do their own invading of the Mayan culture as a whole does he regain his humanity and realize how far his culture is about to fall. At its best in Apocalypto, Mayan civilization falls with a genuine adrenaline rush.