OK, so a few months ago, Mel Gibson had the year’s biggest celebrity meltdown, unless somebody comes up with a better one in the next few weeks.

This week, however, he has a new movie in the theaters called Apocalypto. Hollywood’s talking heads have been trying to figure out what impact his drunken ravings will have on the movie’s fortunes. That’s their business. Mine is to tell you whether the movie’s good or bad. In that capacity, I have to say it’s a bit of both.

The story takes place in Central America in the early 16th century. As you may have heard, it’s performed in the language of Yucatec, which is what the inhabitants of that region would have spoken. A young hunter named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) has his peaceful existence rudely interrupted when Mayan soldiers raid his jungle tribe, kill most of his fellow villagers, and take the survivors prisoner. Jaguar Paw is among these, though before his capture he’s able to hide his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son (Carlos Emilio Baez) from the warriors by lowering them into a large hole. He has to escape from the capital city and get back to his family before they die, either from starvation or from drowning when rain floods the hole.

This good-looking film boasts one truly impressive moment, when Jaguar Paw is brought to the big city and we see one of those Mayan pyramids as it must have looked in its heyday, gleaming and towering over a bustling urban center. In depicting Jaguar Paw’s escape on foot with the soldiers giving chase, Gibson takes his cue from Zacharias Kunuk’s 2001 film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). The storytelling in this part of the film is lean and springy, Gibson’s most controlled directing job to date.


Too bad Gibson can’t keep it up for the whole 135 minutes. There’s too much lame slapstick at the beginning when Jaguar Paw is hanging out with his buddies. The film suffers from Gibson’s tendency to score cheap emotional points — Jaguar Paw’s father (Morris Bird) is slaughtered in front of him, and his wife goes into labor just as he’s on his way back to her. The interlude involving a leprous little girl who foretells the future and prophesies the Mayan empire’s doom is, shall we say, a bit much. The movie also loses steam in the endgame, as the band of soldiers chasing Jaguar Paw is picked off one by one in sometimes ridiculous fashion. The general leading them (Raoul Trujillo) even kills one of his own guys for making a pragmatic suggestion, always the mark of an incompetent movie villain. The film never succeeds, despite numerous attempts at evoking a civilization in its death throes. As a piece of pure action cinema, there are stretches of Apocalypto that rival anything in Braveheart. If Gibson had kept to that lowbrow ambition, his film might have had a greater impact.

Starring Rudy Youngblood. Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia. Rated R.