House of the Jaguar
by C. Charis Coyle
If a primitive culture is more limited in behavior and life options than the advanced, modern one we enjoy, what is there that a drama can be built on? Director, co-writer Mel Gibson, with eloquence, action and bloodthirsty detail, sqeezes all the dramatic juice out of a Mayan society on the way out for "Apocalypto." We shouldn't forget just how much there is in common between any two human societies through the ages, especially the elemental instinct for pure survival.
The story, co-written by Farhad Safinia in the Yucatec Maya language with sub-titles, revolves around Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), son of the tribal elder and wise man Flint Sky (Morris Biryellowhead), husband (of pregnant Seven, Dalia Hernandez) and father, is one of the best and cleverest hunters, which we see in an introductory action sequence in which a wild boar is lured into a trap. The joy of the kill is shared by the men of the hunting party as one of them dresses the pig, offering different parts to each man. With great amusement, only the testicles are offered to poor Blunted, the stongman of the village who is having difficulty impregnating his wife and becoming the butt of jokes and embarrassment.
Gibson makes much of it as a sure-fire means to express the universality of humor and communal camaraderie. This scene around a dead pig in a jungle rainforest bears much in common with a group of buddies in a bar, just without the alcohol and with a wholesome amount of physical conditioning. We get to know and admire them.
Jaguar Paw is a leader in the making who takes his father's counsel very seriously. When a neighboring tribe passes through their jungle, Flint Sky sees their expressions as filled with fear, having been chased from their home territory by a marauding band and now seeking a new beginning. With a graveness that's more prescient than even he realizes, Flint Sky lectures his son. "Remove such fear from your heart," he advises.
After a day of byplay and banter, the village settles in for the night. A dog barks continually, spoiling Seven's sleep. Then, the bark ceases. All is quiet. Too quiet. Something lurks in the jungle. Jaguar Paw rises, sensing something. What comes is death and capture by a tribal band of well-armed and skillful warriors led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), who is outfitted with designer garb of human jaws across his shoulders and upper arms as though providing him protection from machete strikes and, at the same time, allowing a view of his imressive chest musculature -- a mighty bad man, indeed.
Zero Wolf's intent is to kill whoever he must in order to corral the greatest number of captives for a long march to the great Mayan capital city. His attack is performed with great ferocity and viciousness.
Jaguar Paw's first instinct is to hide his family by dropping them by rope down a deep pit. When he's spotted, he joins in the fight and comes up against Snake Ink. Swift, hand-to-hand combat shows Jaguar Paw's superiority and greater strengh when he turns the attacker's knife and draws it closer to the man's neck. But he's stopped by Zero Wolf in time who also prohibits Snake Ink from avenging himself for his near death. To kill one of his captives, says Zero Wolf, is to rob him of his property, and you don't want to do that to Zero Wolf.
Snake Ink relents and, in moments that follow, expresses his taste for the most loathesome sadism.
The taken villagers' fears are held at an intense level by not knowing what they're marching toward. Along the way, a diseased child tending to her dead mother is encountered and prevented from approaching the column. Seerline, she forsees the bad ones' future, predicting the presence of a Jaguar, a sun that becomes night, and an end to life. It's time for Zero Wolf and his men to know a little fear.
While overwhelmed by the teaming, orgiastic capital city of the Mayan civilization, the mystery of why they've been taken here isn't quickly revealed to our captured tribe, until the human heads careening down the steps of the high temple to the Sun God one by one begins to clarify the horror of their destinies.
While salvation from it seems impossible, the second of the diseased child's warnings occur -- in the form of a solar eclipse, something of more than a little significance to a culture that worships the sun. This will lead to a "Naked Prey" chase through the jungle in which an injured Jaguar Paw runs for his life from an enraged Zero Wolf and his best men. But, just whose jungle is it? To the victor goes the apocalypse.
This is an all-you-can-take feast that will satisfy every appetite for bloodthirsty action packaged in an unrelenting pace and suspenseful drama. Bravo to Gibson for making it so viscerally compelling by its connection to the value of family survival. His use of the new high definition Genesis camera system in the hands of Dean Semler, the cinematographer who shot the 2nd and 3rd "Mad Max" films, pays off. His depictions of cruelty are unrestrained and, arguably, as gory as they need to be. You could never accuse Gibson of being unconvincing where blood and sadism are concerned.
The jungle and Mayan city sets are ravishing in color-saturated beauty and detail, lending organic realism to the pro-feel of non-pro native performers. Youngblood is dynamic and attractive, as natural a movie star as they come. The textures of foliage and skin is a dominant part of the visual feast. Locations included Veracruz, Catemaco, Costa Rica and the UK. The score by James Horner is quietly expressive employing varieties of instrumentation that enhances the setting and its lurking dangers.
If Mel Gibson can stay out of the news for personal issues, he will likely take his place as a high concept action director with the best of them. Tackling such a subject and setting as this, after the highly charged and certainly more pretentious "Passion of the Christ," is a daring, manful challenge that he meets better than many a critic might have imagined, let alone that he could pull off with such clarity and appeal. His fusion of male physicality with villainy and humanism promises interesting adventures ahead.
~~ Jules Brenner
DTS Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound
Original Mayan Language Track
English, French and Spanish subtitles
Widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio) enhanced for 16:9