Although there are references along the way to such disparate films as Planet of the Apes and Midnight Cowboy — not to mention his own Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ — Apocalypto reveals that Mel Gibson’s chief inspirations are chiliastic fundamentalism and the Three Stooges. The first half-hour shows what wacky cut-ups those Mayans could be. Who doesn’t enjoy a good joke involving tapir testicles? Or a pre-Columbian variation on that Stooge classic, the guy with the burning ass seeking relief in a trough of water? The last hour is a riveting, if ridiculous, reprise of Cornel Wilde’s harrowing The NakedPrey (1966), as the noble hunter Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) flees from the thugs who raided his village and captured him and his pals for human sacrifice. He needs to rescue his wife (Dalia Hernandez) and son before rain fills the dry well where he hid them from the bad guys; along the way he’s pierced, clubbed, stabbed, and in general worked over almost as much as Jesus in The Passion — whom he’s no doubt meant to resemble. Unlike Jesus, he can dish it out as well, but things never get any easier for the redoubtable Mayan.
The middle of the film, though, finds Gibson at his sadistic best, depicting monumental savagery with a surreal cinematic glee that puts the Apocalypse in Apocalypto. Hordes of howling revelers in Fellini-esque garb cheer on a long line of blue-painted victims as they ascend a pyramid to have their beating hearts cut out. The priests bounce the severed heads down an enormous stairway to where they’re caught in nets. No wonder Mel fell off the wagon.
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