After all the hype (a major motion picture in Mayan with subtitles, financed entirely by the filmmaker), after all the mishagoss (a major star and director who uncorks a rant against Jews), we're left with Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" the movie, which turns out to be a not very good film but a very exciting one anyway.
It's pre-Columbian times, and we open on a Mayan village where the men are out in the jungle hunting wild boar, the women and children back around the thatched huts and cooking areas. On the hunt there is much macho byplay and even a moment when two men come to blows; but with an ingenious tripping device they capture the boar, assign the heart to the chief and the balls to the man who doesn't yet have any children.
And then, early one morning, a raiding party from another tribe - a larger one - sneaks into the village, torching the huts, killing and kidnapping the men and women, and leaving the children behind, presumably to die because they are not going to be able to hunt for food. One man, Jaguar Paw, who is to be our hero, has his wife and child hide in what appears to be a natural cistern, a twenty-foot-deep hole in the rocks. He tells them he will be back to get them.
He and the other captured men and women are taken on a cruel walk through the jungle, across a whitewater river, and to a city in the jungle, where other captured slaves are building new temples. What now? Well, if you're concerned about my giving away the plot, let me assure you that there's hardly any to give away; so either indulge me or stop reading, because just as our hero is about to have his heart ripped out by the priest of the city as a sacrifice against the drought, there is, guess what, a total eclipse of the sun. It's an omen and he's spared for the moment.
But only for a moment, because he and a few others are taken to the ballfield where they're told to run for their lives; if they make it to the far cornfield and jungle they might live; if not, well, you can imagine. And though skewered from back to front by a spear, Jaguar Paw manages to elude the pursuers, taking us the rest of the way back to his village just in time to rescue his wife and child, who've been trapped at the bottom of the cistern. It's an endless chase scene, where you can picture Gibson and his associates saying to themselves, okay, what narrow escape trick can we give him next? And what about the one after that? You get the feeling that they ran out of ideas along about the forty-minute mark.
Anyway, it's a story, though not much of one for a two-and-a-quarter hour movie, particularly since no one in the film talks about anything other than plot points. Gibson is a very good action director and editor, and he cranks up the tension very well here, but "Apocalypto" never amounts to more than a simple-minded kidnapping/escape/chase film. What might have been a thoughtful glimpse into a mysterious world ends up as a kind of middle-American western.