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(2006) (Rudy Youngblood, Raoul Trujillo) (R)

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Drama/Action: A Mayan villager tries to make his way back to his pregnant wife and child while avoiding the warriors who kidnapped him and devastated their village.
Times seem good for 16th century Mayan villager Jaguar Paw (RUDY YOUNGBLOOD). When not hunting with his father Flint Sky (MORRIS BIRDYELLOWHEAD) and other villagers, including Blunted (JONATHAN BREWER) who's often the butt of others' practical jokes, he spends time with his pregnant wife, Seven (DALIA HERNANDEZ), and their young son Turtles Run (CARLOS EMILIO BAEZ).

Things change, however, when Holcane Warriors led by Zero Wolf (RAOUL TRUJILLO) invade their village, enslaving the adults they don't kill while leaving the children to fend for themselves. During the attack, Jaguar Paw manages to lower his wife and boy down into a deep hole for their protection, but is captured before being able to get them back out. Having nearly killed Snake Ink (RODOLFO PALACIOS) during the battle, he must then watch as the volatile warrior slaughters his father before everyone is marched off.

They eventually arrive in a large city where the captured are forced into slave labor or used as human sacrifices by the high priests. After some harrowing moments, Jaguar Paw manages to escape. He then tries to make his way back to his decimated village, all while contending with Zero Wolf, Snake Ink and other warriors who are hot on his trail.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Back in 1979, a relatively unknown Australian actor appeared in a first-time filmmaker's movie about a post-apocalyptic future where a cop goes on a revenge spree following his wife and child's murder at the hands of roving gangs. Two years later, he reprised the role where he continued to battle those elaborately dressed and often insanely criminal thugs, including in what's considered one of the best chase sequences ever committed to film.

The actor, of course, was a young Mel Gibson and the films were, respectively, George Miller's "Mad Max" and "Mad Max 2" (known stateside as "The Road Warrior"). They put the Aussie on the map and path to stardom that eventually included various stints behind the camera, including violent looks at a legendary Scottish warrior and an even more famous religious leader.

Now, Gibson -- following an unfortunate bit of notorious off-camera behavior -- taps into that violence again along with the chase sensibilities of those "Mad Max" films in "Apocalypto." A look at the beginning of the end of the Mayans -- the indigenous people who populated much of what's now Mexico and other parts of Central America for about three millennia -- the effort is a visually and viscerally stunning piece of work.

Featuring a cast of unknown but surprisingly charismatic and expressive performers, a non-English dialect (following "The Passion of The Christ" doing the same) and shot on location in Mexico, the film wouldn't seem to have much going for it, at least on paper. After all, it isn't the story of Jesus, and Gibson doesn't appear in it as he did in "Braveheart."

Nevertheless, and while it's certainly not perfect, it's a welcome if incredibly violent departure from much of the cookie cutter fodder Hollywood usually delivers to the masses. Think what you will about Gibson as a person, but there's no denying he has the guts and talent to turn what looks a like a commercially questionable idea into a powerful experience.

Starting with a quote from American historian William James Durant about civilizations not being conquered from the outside until they are destroyed from within, we meet a small contingent of Mayan villagers hunting a tapir. As they succeed, we not only see that they're efficient and resourceful, but also human, in terms of practical jokes played on one of their own, a poor sap who not only gets it from them, but also his overbearing mother-in-law who wants him to produce a grandchild.

All of that's designed to make us like and care about the characters, which is important considering how their world is about to be turned upside down and then some. And that's from an army of Holcane warriors who invade their village, kill many of their people, take the rest of the adults as slaves, and leave the children to die.

It's a harrowing scene of brutality where our protagonist, Jaguar Paw (played by the absolutely terrific Rudy Youngblood), not only watches his father be murdered by a crazed warrior (Rodolfo Palacious who, along with Raoul Trujillo as his heavily costumed leader, could be straight out of one of those "Mad Max" films), but must also lower his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son (Carlos Emilio Baez) down into a deep hole to save them from the fate everyone else is about to endure.

That leads to a Bataan type march that eventually brings everyone to the big city where the spiritual leaders have additional unpleasant surprises in store for some of the men (the squeamish had better cover their eyes as heads most definitely roll). Following a literal and figurative bit of astronomical deus ex machina, Jaguar Paw comes away from that unscathed, but that leads to the film's heart and soul -- the extended escape, chase, and cat and mouse sequences that take up a big chunk of the film's nearly 140-minute runtime.

And it's with that material where the film shines, at least in terms of edge of your seat, visual storytelling. The gist at this point is that Jaguar Paw needs to elude the villains and get back to rescue his wife and child who are still stuck in that hole (cutaways to the two there, including them dealing with that predicament, serve as the film's breather moments). The warriors, of course, don't want to let that happen, especially since it's now personal for Zero Wolf, the head baddie.

What follows is a combination of elements from "Predator," "The Fugitive," those "Mad Max" films sans the vehicles and most any chase film set in a jungle. Some may fault the film for eliciting memories of those pictures (the most notable being a waterfall sequence where the pursued similarly takes an escapist plunge), or in how some of the dialogue (most of which occurs before the chase) has been translated into an uneven mix of ancient and contemporary sounding English phrases (the "He's f*cked" one being the most egregious).

Yet, there's no denying that it works as a terrific action flick, or that Gibson gets some strong performances from his unknown and often fairly inexperienced cast. Perhaps most compelling, however, is the ending that I won't give away. While it cements a more definite timeline for the story that may surprise some viewers, it leaves the question of Gibson's point of view.

Does he see the conclusion as a new hope following what's already been the beginning of the end of this civilization? Or is it a harbinger of the true apocalyptic end that will make what's previously occurred look like small potatoes in comparison? Even sensing that the development had to be coming, I still don't know. While flawed, "Apocalypto" is a stunning, often mesmerizing, and certainly disturbing experience, and certainly not one for the faint-hearted. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 29, 2006 / Posted December 8, 2006

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