Of all the surprises Mel Gibson musters for his Passion Of The Christ follow-up Apocalypto, the biggest is how relatively small the film is. Gibson's front-and-center place in the press following Passion's bombshell success, his drunken anti-Semitic tirade, and a year of media fascination with his complicated jungle shoots and massive casting calls have all helped make Apocalypto an event film, the kind of year-end prestige picture that have Oscar prognosticators holding their collective breath. But scrape off all the film's arthouse pretensions and modern-politics metaphors, and it's essentially an action film—a sophisticated genre outing, but still a standard one-against-many shoot-'em-up, with spears and obsidian daggers in place of spaghetti-Western guns.
Leading a mostly unknown cast, Rudy Youngblood stars as a young Mayan warrior living in an unspecified Mesoamerican jungle shortly before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia take their time in developing the low-key hunter-gatherer pacing and rituals of Youngblood's enclave, from its friendly, rough humor to Youngblood's relationships with his father, allies, and pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez). Once Youngblood's home begins to feel real, Gibson and Safinia destroy it: Manhunters descend, burning homes, slaughtering men, raping women, and largely ignoring children, then hauling the survivors off to a bustling Mayan city for sale and sacrifice. Ultimately, Youngblood flees, trying to escape his pursuers and return to his wife and son before they succumb to the protective trap in which he left them. From there on in, Apocalypto is just a primal game of murderous tag, Rambo with bone earrings and an alien dialect.
Apocalypto's you-are-there immediacy proves tremendously effective, particularly during the city scenes. As an hour of simple jungle sequences give way to Cecil B. DeMille excess and pointed allusions to American high culture, the imagery becomes as alien and overwhelming to viewers as it is to Youngblood's character; there's too much to take in at once. The whole film is too reliant on action-movie cuts and zooms, plus James Horner's insistent score, but it's beautifully rendered and convincingly exciting. It isn't the epic drama the Oscar handicappers were anticipating, but actually watching it, they'll probably wind up holding their breath out of tension instead of anticipation.