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As an action piece, Mel Gibson's violent, subtitled Mayan epic Apocalypto is engrossing, but it lacks a real emotional hook.


In the waning days of the Mayan empire, brave hunter Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) lives a simple, contented life with his pregnant wife and young son in a small jungle village. His father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), warns him against fear, but it turns out Jaguar Paw is right to be afraid--one early morning, the sleepy village is ripped apart by invading Holcane warriors. Jaguar Paw thinks fast and hides his family, but they're left stranded when he's captured and marched off with the other survivors to the warriors' chaotic, hellish city. Marked for sacrifice to the priests' bloodthirsty gods, Jaguar Paw manages to evade that grisly fate, only to wind up fleeing for his life through the forest. What follows is a fast-paced, bloody pursuit as Jaguar Paw races against time to save his loved ones--and himself.


Director Gibson purposely cast his film with unknowns, believing that would make the viewing experience more authentic and convincing for audiences. He's right. The idea of watching famous faces traipse around the jungle in loincloths spouting Yucatec is a definite suspension-of-disbelief-killer. That said, most of the cast doesn't have a lot of complex expressive acting to do--Jaguar Paw's main emotion is relentless determination, and his enemies (led by Raoul Trujillo as Zero Wolf) are driven by bloodlust and revenge. All of them do a bang-up job dodging and weaving through the jungle, and the villagers' reaction to the bleak misery of the warriors' festering city (not to mention its massive pyramids) is authentic, but when it comes down to it, Apocalypto isn't really an actors' movie.


What it is is an exotic, relentlessly violent chase movie that ultimately lacks suspense on a basic level. In Braveheart, Gibson had a main character with nothing left to lose except his freedom, so he could risk it all and lose. In Apocalypto, Jaguar Paw has everything to live for, and his death--and what it would mean for his family--would make for an unspeakably depressing outcome. Of course, it's easy to forget about that in the face of the movie's gore. From the opening tapir-skewering scene to the brutal human sacrifices (think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with tools), the blood flows--and spurts and gushes--freely and often. The violence fits with the story's primal, adrenaline-charged nature, but it's still not for the faint of heart. Those who can stomach it will be entertained, even if they don't leave the jungle feeling the same way about Jaguar Paw as they did about William Wallace.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.