Mel Gibson doesn't make things easy for himself. His last film, The Passion of The Christ, was a self-funded hymn to flagellation in which all the dialogue was spoken in not one but two dead languages. For its follow-up, Apocalypto, Gibson has gone for more subtitles, another ancient civilisation, and a cast of unknown actors clothed in tattoos and piercings and not much else. Not that Apocalypto is as perverse as The Passion. Ultimately, it's an old-fashioned, pulse-pounding chase movie that sprints in the footsteps of The Fugitive - but there are 90 minutes of scene-setting before the chase begins.
The story starts deep in a Central American rainforest, 500-odd years ago, as a band of Mayan tribesmen kid each other in their Yucatec dialect about which one of them has to eat the testicles of the tapir they've just hunted; and, as in The Passion, the foreign dialogue sounds so natural that it switches very quickly from seeming like a crackpot idea to seeming like the only logical one. The Edenic village life of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and his friends is established, with a surprising number of Carry On-style mother-in-law gags, before a raiding party, kitted out with even more tattoos and piercings, charges in to burn their houses, tie up their men, rape their women, and kill anyone who objects. Gibson's central preoccupation as a film-maker, it seems, is to show people harming each other in the most gruesome and harrowing way possible.
Intriguingly for a fanatical Catholic, Gibson's other concern in Apocalypto is to portray organised religion as a malicious means of ruining its followers and bloating its high priests. After their capture, Jaguar Paw and his fellow tribesmen are routemarched to a metropolis at the forest's edge, where the holy men are trying to appease the gods by beheading a production line of slaves. It's these city scenes which are the film's highlight. Reminiscent of Apocalypse Now and Aguirre: The Wrath of God, they get across just how disorientating and hellish it is for the jungle dwellers to be surrounded for the first time by sky- scraping pyramids and baying crowds.
Eventually, Jaguar Paw escapes, and races back to his village to fish out his young son and pregnant wife from the crevasse where they've been hiding. He's an action hero well worth cheering on. As he leaps down waterfalls and outruns jaguars, he's athletic enough for his feats to be believable, but human enough to be injured and tired. And when one of his pursuers meets a gory demise, he doesn't lessen its impact by making any smarmy, post-Bond quips, in Yucatec or any other language. There are some daft moments, of course. Whenever someone is attacked by an animal it looks as if Gibson has thrown a cuddly toy at the camera. But Apocalypto stands as an impressive achievement. As an adventure movie, it's never boring, and as the temporary revival of an exotic world, it's a dizzying success. More importantly, no one but Gibson would have attempted it.