It really began with his "Braveheart" more than a decade ago, though no one really noticed then because it obeyed all the conventions of a big Hollywood epic, albeit a very violent one. But Mel Gibson's career as a film director is becoming one long essay in human cruelty through the ages. Whatever spiritual messages devout Christians took from 2004's "The Passion of the Christ," its violence was pornographic.
In "Apocalypto," Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia turn to the Mayan civilization that dominated present-day Mexico and Central America from 2400 B.C. to the 15th century A.D. They ignore its advances in urban planning, mathematics, art, astronomy, agriculture and writing systems to dwell on its utter barbarity. Men hunt men, rape women and sacrifice victims by tearing hearts from quivering bodies with joyful ferocity.
This is no cheesy exploitation movie, though, but a first-rate epic build around one man's will to survive to rescue his family. In other words, in the good Hollywood tradition, it's got a hero, villain, damsel in distress, exotic natives and breathtaking vistas that evoke feelings of awe and dread. The guy knows how to make a heart-pounding movie; he just happens to be a cinematic sadist.
Gibson's well-publicized personal problems, the film's eye-catching key art and critics calling him a sadist probably add up to money in the bank for the Walt Disney Co. "Apocalypto" might not reach the $600 million worldwide grosses of "Passion," but it will attract a considerable international crowd. To his credit, there is never a dull moment.