An artfully crafted chase film that is as breathless as it is brutal, Mel Gibson's end-times tale of peril is, when all is said and done, a typical action film with some decidedly atypical qualities. Jaguar Paw is a good-natured hunter from a peaceful forest village, but his life is turned upside down when invading Mayans emerge from the trees seeking sacrifices to appease their angered gods and entertain the masses. Despite managing to usher his pregnant wife and young son to safety before being spirited away to an uncertain fate, Jaguar Paw remains determined to escape his captors, rescue his family, and return to the forest where he hunted with his father, and will one day hunt with his children. His desperate quest is complicated, however, by a sadistic group of Mayans who will hunt him to his dying breath. While the subtitles and sweeping trailers may have given some the impression that Gibson's follow-up to The Passion of the Christ was a grandiose epic richly detailing the downfall of a once-powerful kingdom, the fact is that, despite surface appearances, Apocalypto is about as typical an action film as they come. All of the pieces are perfectly in place here -- from the noble young hero on a mission to save his loved ones to the intimidating villain who simply seems too powerful to overcome, his sickeningly sadistic sidekick, and adrenaline-soaked action scenes that will have viewers gripping their seats as they duck to avoid lethal projectiles. It's an absorbing tale of survival punctuated by an extended, expertly crafted chase sequence that will likely elicit sweat from the palms of even the most skeptical of viewers.
The fact that the cast is largely comprised of unfamiliar faces and that the film is spoken in an unfamiliar dialect goes a long way in allowing viewers to lose themselves in the story, with Gibson's and co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia's strong eye for character offering colorful details for even some of the most inconsequential of supporting players. In an unusual move for such a seemingly serious-minded film, Gibson and Safinia allow the characters to define themselves not only through their actions in times of great danger, but their humor and warmth in times of peace as well. It's an interesting move, and one that makes the horrific massacre which sets the plot into motion all the more effective. Artistically, the film is a feast for the eyes with awe-inspiring sets, fluid jungle photography, and an appropriately primal score by James Horner punctuated by chest-thumping percussion. Assured editing keeps things moving at a brisk, satisfying pace that stealthily belies its somewhat intimidating running time (well over the two-hour mark). For multiplex viewers willing to give a subtitled action flick a fair shake, Apocalypto delivers the goods with fierce abandon and forceful intensity.