I’ve just returned from seeing Mel Gibson’s extraordinary new epic set in ancient Mayan times, and I have a problem. I must decide which film to drop from my list of Ten Best Films of All Time to make room for ‘Apocalypto’.
What Mel Gibson has created is possibly the most intelligent, best edited, most beautifully photographed pulp fiction action movie ever. When I say ‘pulp fiction’, I’m thinking of the writer’s definition of the term.
“Pulp’ stories are lean, mean dramas designed to thrill and entertain. The structure of ‘pulp’ is very simple; the hero is never out of danger until the end. Crises overlap. Before your hero solves one problem, another emerges. He’s never at peace.
When Mr. Gibson discusses the film he talks about dying civilizations, a culture controlled by fear, and the historical importance of his subject — but don’t let that put you off. He’s telling a simple story of a man trying to survive in a violent time.
What’s refreshing about ‘Apocolypto’ is that it has none of the things today’s action film directors thought were essential: no automatic weapons, no swarms of helicopters, no explosions, no cars speeding along at one hundred miles an hour. It doesn’t even have horses. In fact, there are no metal weapons.
Aside from the beginning, which introduces the characters living in the village in a lighthearted manner and has a truly funny scene involving a practical joke, what we have is a two hour battle to the death utilizing knife blades chipped from flint, arrows, sticks, rocks, and bare hands.
But how did a big-budget movie in a nearly-dead language, about an era and culture that has been ignored in fiction, with totally unknown actors, ever get made? Well, the dirty little secret is; the Mayans control Hollywood.
Just kidding. Forget the kibitzing Gibson has gotten over the past year, the talk of him mindlessly pursuing a venture that was doomed to be a box office failure.
This man knows exactly what he’s doing. (At least, when he’s making movies.) I had no trouble with the subtitles — it’s a visual story anyway. And it took only a few minutes for me to relate to the characters. They may be ancient Mayans, and I may be a Polish Jew babyboomer who grew up in the Bronx, but we have the same elemental things in common.
In fact, the last time I was mugged was an awful lot like the final scene in the movie.
If Gibson the Moviemaker is mad, he’s mad in all the best ways. If it took a multi-millionaire madman to put this unique epic on film, we’re lucky he was available. And if he was drunk during any point of his creative process, I’ll paraphrase Abraham Lincoln and say, “Send a bottle of whatever he’s drinking to the other Hollywood directors.”
We grew up with films that were compromised versions of history; Nazis speaking with British accents. John Wayne pretending he was Mongol warlord Genghis Khan (‘The Conquerer’). Tony Curtis as a Cossack with a Bronx-ese accent (‘Taras Bulba’). And lots of Westerns with blue-eyed Irish actresses in brown makeup playing Mexicans and Native Americans.
There are none of those annoying inconsistencies in ‘Apocalypto’. We feel we’re peering through the veil of time, spying on people and places that are long gone. A famous face or an anachronistic term would have jolted us out of the moment.
As for the violence: it’s unrelenting and unapologetic. But this is a movie about primitive warriors. I prefer it to a film like ‘Man on Fire’, which uses the ploy of sweet young Dakota Fanning in peril to give handsome, lovable Denzel Washington the moral license to shove a hand grenade up some bad guy’s tushie.
So, if you aren’t opposed to graphic, brutal cinematic violence, get on line for ‘Apocalypto’ this weekend. See it on the big screen, with a cheering crowd. You’re in for one hell of a ride.
BUT……every review of a Mel Gibson film begs for a review of Mel Gibson — The Man. Personally, my first instinct upon hearing of his infamous drunken rant was to write him off as an unredeemable bigot. But then several of his Jewish friends came forward, and said he had treated them with nothing but kindness and respect, and even had gone out of his way to help them.
Believe me, if there was one aggressively anti-Semitic action taken by Mel Gibson during his life, we would have heard about it by now.
After ‘The Passion’ was released, we braced for a plague of anti-Jewish violence — but it never came. And then Gibson gave us a full apology. Well, actually, I’m counting two half-hearted apologies as one. But what can we do with this guy now? If he’s shunned by the Jews of Hollywood, it would only strengthen the prejudice of those who think we are in total control of the media, using it for their own selfish purposes. And whether or not his film is Oscar-worthy (and I definitely think it is), if it doesn’t win some Academy Award the same people will accuse the Jews of trying to hinder his career.
The bottom line is this: As an anti-Semite Gibson has been all-talk and no-action. According to Jewish tradition, that’s not a crime.
It may be a sin. It may be a problem, but it’s his problem. As Rabbi Henny Youngman wisely said, “Last night I saved a lady from being attacked — I controlled myself.” I know that’s a joke. But like most jokes, there’s truth to be found in it.
When I see Mel Gibson on television, I try to look past his baby blue eyes and into his head. And I wonder, “What’s going on in there? What’s playing at the ‘Gibson-Plex’?” I can’t be sure, but I’ll bet there’s a different movie on every screen. An uplifting comedy about a father and his loving family on one screen, a terrifying snuff film on another, a party comedy about drunken teenagers on a third screen, and a patriotic war movie on the next.
And in the big theater, on the huge screen — an epic battle between a Hero and a Villain: Mel Gibson vs. Mel Gibson.
Look, Mel is obviously a troubled boy. He’s carrying a big can of whoopass around in his back pocket. But as long as he only opens it up to make films like ‘Apocalypto’, everything will be fine.
Wait a minute. I just realized I have a loophole; if I count both “Godfather 1’ and ‘Godfather 2’ together as a single film, I have room for ‘Apocalypto’ on my Ten Best Films of All Time List. Thank goodness. I almost had to drop ‘Sunset Boulevard’.