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Gibson's 'Apocalypto' is gorgeous, gory

Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" passes the only movie test that's important. It's the "I'd pay to see that" test. As in, "a blood-spattered jungle chase epic set at the end of the Mayan Empire? I'd pay to see that." It's a movie that spares no effort t...

Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" passes the only movie test that's important. It's the "I'd pay to see that" test.

As in, "a blood-spattered jungle chase epic set at the end of the Mayan Empire? I'd pay to see that."

It's a movie that spares no effort to take us to a place and time we haven't been before. Mel's latest history lesson is a parable about ignorance, environmental degradation, senseless sacrifice and religious fanaticism. He has made a big film about the collapse of Mayan civilization, but he's talking about our own.

There's the rub. Knowing as much as we know about Gibson's beliefs, the movie feels like strained Catholic prophecy. The way he depicts the Mayans -- so savage, superstitious and doomed -- he suggests that maybe Catholic Spain did them a favor when they rowed ashore to enslave and wipe out -- ahem -- convert them. Gibson has cited Spanish missionary accounts of the Maya as research for the film. But those same missionaries burned almost all Mayan books as heretical, so that history would never have a chance to judge them on their own merits.

"Apocalypto" begins with a lengthy peek at the jungle world of a tribe of hunter-gatherers. They trap pig-like tapirs, kill them, divide the spoils, and crack bawdy jokes about each others' manhood. They are primitive, but they have a sense of humor about themselves. They tell mother-in-law jokes. Grudges aren't borne for long, even ones that begin when one guy is tricked into eating tapir testicles.

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A chance encounter with other primitives is a warning. They're fleeing because their lands were "ravaged." Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, just great) wants to know by whom, where and when. But his "wise" father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) counsels keeping what they've seen to themselves. He's never met an ostrich, but he knows all about sticking one's head in the sand.

A dawn raid by better-armed and organized warriors, bedecked in copper, gold, jade and human jawbones, wakes them all up, too late. The Maya slaughter some, enslave others. Jaguar Paw hides his wife in a cave with no way out (smart), and then he's captured. A brutal trek through the jungles takes people whose lives have been limited by their immediate surroundings into a world of cultivated (and failing) crops, organized (slave) labor, a vast city of stone dominated by steep, bloodstained pyramids.

But the Maya, we see, are in decline. Plague, deforestation, war, pestilence and over-population have made them frantic to sacrifice more and more captives to the gods they are sure they have lost favor with.

Gibson re-creates a chaotic Mayan world, filling the screen with more images of merchants, laborers, the leisure class and bloodstained priesthood than the eye can easily absorb. The Maya's days of science and art and organization are behind them. Now, fanaticism and superstition rule. Gibson doesn't romanticize them, or the hunter-gatherers. The emphasis here is on the brutal, the brutish and the savage.

Jaguar Paw, in shock at the scale of what he is seeing, can only think of the wife (Dalia Hernandez) he left behind, whom he must save. He's going to have to wade through a lot of gore to do that. Gibson, an actor-director with a lengthy rap sheet of sado-masochistic violence, spares no grisly image -- from still-beating hearts snatched from victims to sucking chest wounds, impalings, decapitations, blunt instrument trauma and a graphic jaguar mauling.

For all its texture (the actors speak Yucatec Maya, with subtitles) and "message," "Apocalypto" is a stunningly simple picture. It's a compendium of every forest chase tale you've ever seen, from the Tarzan movies to the Indiana Jones pictures, "The Naked Prey" to "The Last of the Mohicans." Gibson cuts, in classic cliffhanger style, between Jaguar Paw's quest and his wife and child's struggle to stay alive long enough to be rescued.

The action beats are so predictable that you wonder when our hero will climb a tree, when a waterfall will intervene, and how long before somebody steps in that ancient Hollywood menace, quicksand.

That said, and after starting far too slowly, pausing far too often to show more blood, "Apocalypto" (the word means "I reveal") finishes at a cinematic sprint, a movie that will get your heart pumping even as you're seeing a lot more heart-pumping and blood-spurting than is necessary. At least if mainstream Hollywood does turn its back on him, Gibson will always have a job doing "Hostel" and "Saw" sequels.

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