THE Myth of Crazy Mel began seeping out of Hollywood long before he was arrested for drunken driving six weeks ago and burst out with the ugly, anti-Semitic comments that have put him in extreme damage-control mode. A 2004 episode of “South Park” about “The Passion of the Christ” depicts him as a looney-tunes guy bouncing off the walls in his underwear and whooping. Mel Gibson is “crazy, dude,” one South Park kid tells another.
Newmarket Films/Icon Productions
Mel Gibson on the set of “Apocalypto” in Mexico. The film is scheduled to open in December.
“Mel’s crazy, but I like him,” a name-dropping billionaire says in Bruce Wagner’s latest Hollywood novel, “Memorial” (released this month but written pre-meltdown).
And Mr. Gibson’s new film, "Apocalypto" was already one of the most talked-about of the season, largely because of the Crazy Mel factor. Even for him, the oddball quotient is high. An action movie set in the dying days of the Maya civilization, the 15th century, “Apocalypto” was made in the Yucatec dialect without a single recognizable actor, and shot in the jungles of Mexico, where heavy rains slowed production and postponed its planned release from this summer. Photos from the set showed that Mr. Gibson had grown a full beard and let its central white streak grow longer than the rest, as if defiantly choosing to look like an aging eccentric.
As a director, he has been some kind of mad genius so far, anticipating what audiences want with startling clarity: making a sword-and-sandals epic when it was no longer fashionable, yet winning Oscars (including best director) for "Braveheart" (1995); turning what seemed a gigantic folly — a gruesome, subtitled, self-financed passion play — into a $600 million worldwide blockbuster with "The Passion" (2004). But those photos from Mexico and the subject of “Apocalypto” — the hero, called Jaguar Paw, is chosen as a human sacrifice and makes a fast-paced escape through the rain forest — were enough to make anyone wonder whether Mr. Gibson had finally gone around the bend and turned into some cinematic Kurtz, lost in the dark jungle.
The film is still being edited, so there’s no way to know whether “Apocalypto” might be crazy-brilliant or just crazed. But we know from his recent mug shot that Mr. Gibson has lost the beard. (As those things go, it’s a glamour shot, showing that some actors can play to the camera no matter how high their blood alcohol level.) And we know that his drunken Malibu tirade casts an inescapable shadow over the film’s opening, raising many questions, including: Will “Apocalypto” really arrive on Dec. 8? As recently as last week Touchstone, the Disney division releasing it, insisted it would.
That’s about all the studio will
say about a movie that must have become an albatross, because the crucial question is: How can this film be marketed? Mr. Gibson’s name and ability to chat up “Apocalypto” was its only real selling point. Now he trails apologies and questions about bigotry wherever he goes, which will make it pretty hard to stay on message about old Jaguar Paw.
Whatever happens with “Apocalypto,” it would be unfair if his personal debacle were to overshadow Mr. Gibson’s immense gifts and accomplishments as a director. Apart from commercial success, his films have been rich with action, emotion and visual interest. “The Man Without a Face” (1993) wasn’t the safest or easiest choice for a first-time director. He cast himself as a former teacher whose face is horribly disfigured on one side, and whose innocent relationship as mentor to a teenage boy is questioned. The film may not be as gripping as it should be, but the camera moves fluidly in this pretty-looking period piece, set in Maine in 1968, and the delicate subject is not overplayed until Mr. Gibson gives himself one scenery-chewing monologue near the end. You can almost feel him finding has way as a director while yearning to burst the limits of the movie’s small scale.