Thursday, July 10, 2014

Running with the Mayans: Revisiting Apocalypto

By Steve Evans

How many times has the famous short story, The Most Dangerous Game, been adapted to film? I can think of the original from 1932, shot in chiaroscuro shades of black and white by night on the same sets used to make King Kong. There's a nice DVD edition of this picture in The Criterion Collection.

Variations of this adventure tale abound in the cinema. Essentially, The Most Dangerous Game involves an innocent man captured and set into the wild for the sole purpose of being hunted and killed by ruthless men who live for the perverse sport of tracking and eliminating another human being. In some accounts, the hunters pay for the privilege. In others, they hunt just for the hell of it.

Jean Claude Van Damme starred in Hard Target (1992), which was Hong Kong director John Woo's first American film. It's ruff and tuff, with as much stylistic camera whoop-de-doo that Woo can get away with. Lots of slo-mo explosions and doves suspended in flight, punctuated by the Belgian Van Damme's peculiar blend of kickboxing and stilted non-sequiturs delivered in halting English.

I could rattle off a dozen more films in this sub-genre, but for my nickel, the most absorbing of the bunch is Mel Gibson's off-the-rails Mayan thriller Apocalypto (2006). Easily in the running for most violent film ever made, the picture is so completely engrossing that at times you may think you're watching a documentary of an ancient culture. Once it gets rolling, though, the tension never lets up. 

Briefly, a peaceful tribe of Indians is ambushed by Mayan warriors who need human sacrifices for their sun god. Tribal leader Jaguar Paw is among those tied up and forced to march through the jungle to the Mayan city, but not before he is able to hide his pregnant wife and young son in a deep pit.

Vividly depicted on massive sets augmented by CGI, the Mayan city is shown to be part of a decadent civilization in rapid decline. Disease is rampant. Crops wither in fields parched from lack of rain. The Mayan leaders attempt to appease their followers with ghastly human sacrifices at the summit of their pyramids. Indian prisoners are forced onto an altar, where their beating hearts are cut and ripped from their bodies with a jagged bone knife (this is not a date movie; much of Gibson's original vision had to be toned down so the film would receive an R-rating).

Jaguar Paw manages to escape this fate and his captors, setting in motion the final act of the plot -- an adrenaline-charged chase through the jungles as a persecuted primitive man races to save his family while Mayan warriors pursue him mercilessly. From here on, it's catch me if you can. Jaguar Paw will leap from waterfalls, fend off poisonous snakes, jaguars and wasps, dodge spears and arrows, and kill many evil men with a savagery befitting the times and circumstances in his heroic odyssey to rescue wife and child.

The performances, costume design, cinematography and breathless editing are top-notch. All dialog (with English subtitles) is in the Yucatec Maya language, adding to the authenticity of this mesmerizing cinematic experience.

Found it on Blu-ray today for a measly $5 so it's off to the 15th century with me this evening.

Say what you will about Gibson, but when he gets a chance to work with unique material that sates his bloodlust and transparently Darwinian point of view, the results are stunning, visceral and unforgettable.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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