Opens Friday throughout the Triangle

Mel Gibson, our leading purveyor (and practitioner) of Extreme History, is back with another paean to the ecstasy of agony. Less dogmatic than The Passion of the Christ, with blue body paint to equal Braveheart, Gibson’s Apocalypto manages to make Mesoamerican pre-history as heart-thumpingly entertaining as a Rambo sequel.

As unlikely as this movie sounded, it now has “huge hit” written all over it. And that at least tells us how Mel will be regarded in Hollywood this Christmas: not as a raving, pathological anti-Semite, but as a visionary filmmaker with a wee drinking problem.

I’m not sure why anyone would have thought otherwise, except that Mel’s career has long suggested a loose cannon that could go spinning overboard at any moment. That impression was subtly bolstered by the fact that, after Mel’s public embarrassments earlier this year, his new film was kept under wraps rather than being the subject of a lengthy marketing blitz.

Was it possible that Apocalyptoa big-budget movie with no stars, about an obscure culture and made in the Yucatec Mayan languagewas some kind of folie de grandeur, a crazy art film that might finally reveal Mel as the berserk cinematic Captain Ahab that some had long suspected?

In retrospect, all this works so much to the film’s advantage that cynics might deduce that Mel staged his DWI arrest and subsequent retreat from the public eye as part of a very unorthodox (and economical!) publicity campaign, one aimed at cloaking Apocalypto in a cloud of mystery and tantalizing suspicion.

As it turns out, the movie is no demented exercise in esoterica. It is, instead, a full-throated popcorn epic, a brilliantly executed tale of survival and endurance so primal in its appeal, and so effective in its orchestration of narrative surprise, that it can be enjoyed by audiences of virtually any age or cultural backgroundexcept, no doubt, for the very squeamish.

Yes, the film is gory and gruesome. But that will probably be overemphasized or exaggerated in the press. Compared to the zealous bloodletting of Braveheart and the outright sadomasochism of Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto looks downright judicious, if not demure, in its deployment of pain and punishment. Aside from one sequence atop a Mayan temple, it doesn’t veer into the territory of the ghastly and grotesque, but stays firmly within the accepted perimeters of the action genre.

Scripted by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, the film’s story has a canny and careful architecture. The first section introduces us to the tribe of a young Indian named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a clan that inhabits a small village in the jungle. Rather than overtly romantic or leering, the film’s view of these people combines a kind of straightforward ethnographic fascination with an appropriately disarming and humanizing element of ribald humor. (A side note: As in Passion of the Christ, Gibson’s escorting us into a world where the characters speak a foreign language is done in a way that disproves the conventional Hollywood assumption that mainstream audiences won’t accept subtitles. Three cheers for that.)

Our well-paced entry into village life allows just enough time to get an appreciative feel for its textures, rituals and individual personalities. Then, in a flash, horror strikes. Warriors come storming out of the jungle and overwhelm the villagers, killing a good number and capturing the rest. Jaguar Paw’s wife and young son escape by hiding in a deep hole. Jaguar Paw himself is among the villagers lashed together at the neck with wooden poles and hauled off. “Our life is over,” one captive laments.

As the village’s abandoned children watch in disbelief, the captives are dragged into a raging river and then across a rugged, mountainous terrain. It’s here that Jaguar Paw begins to get a sense of the cruelty in some of his captors, who will throw a man off a cliff just to demonstrate their power. Here, too, we begin to get a feel for Jaguar Paw’s own determination to survive. But his brutal ordeal has just begun.

Knowing that Apocalypto was about the Mayans, I spent the early part of the film wondering if we were ever going to see the pyramids or other evidence of that legendary civilization. It takes an hour or so, but when Jaguar Paw and company are finally dragged out of the jungle and through the streets of the Mayan capitala scene that weirdly recalls Jesus’ entry into Jerusalemwhat they behold is striking.

The movie’s production design is supposedly based on considerable research, and the capital’s people and life suggest a great civilization sinking into decadence, its accomplishments (the architecture alone suggests remarkable mathematical and technical skills) giving way to a cruelty bred of desperation. When the captives reach their destination, they glimpse their intended fate: At the top of a central pyramid, priests are cutting the hearts from a steady stream of captives, then lopping their heads off and flinging both bodies and heads to the ravening crowd below.

In a way, this eye-popping, stomach-turning scene is Apocalypto‘s Crucifixion-like symbolic apex. Yet it’s also just the kick-off for the movie’s turbo-charged climactic sections. Because once it’s over, and a strange twist allows Jaguar Paw to escape his certain sacrifice, we see what Apocalypto really isa bravura chase film, dizzying in its breathless momentum and diabolically ingenious physical action.

The chase begins at a Mayan ball field where Jaguar Paw and some of his fellows are allowed to try to escape, but with their captors assaulting them with arrows and spears from behind and an armed “finisher” at the far side of the field. This scenewhich oddly echoes one with a World War II setting in the recently resurrected French film Army of Shadowsnot only is mounted with tremendous dramatic force, but also extricates Jaguar Paw from his fellow captives and propels him back into the jungle, where his desperation turns to defiance as he leads a posse of pursuers in a headlong race through a spectacular, terrifying landscape.

The movie’s success with the mass audience surely will stem from the high-adrenaline excitement of this dazzling chase. And that’s a formidable achievement in itself. In a sense, Apocalypto gives us cinema stripped to its elemental essentials: movement, action, edge-of-your-seat emotion. In his lucid and carefully wrought handling of these ingredients, Mad Mel proves himself to be not just a superlative action director but an artist with a deeply instinctual sense of his medium’s visceral basis.

Yet is Apocalypto something more than just a crackerjack chase yarn in a startlingly exotic setting? Gibson evidently thinks so. He begins the film with a quote from historian Will Durant to the effect that no civilization collapses without first having decayed within, and you know Mel’s not just talking about the Mayans. He means to suggest clear parallels between the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day, the Mayans in their decline, and our present civilization. He’s even been quoted as comparing the Mayans’ human sacrifices to America sending its kids off to die in Iraq.

All this ties into Gibson’s essentially religious view of things. If you Google Apocalypto and start looking around the Internet, you will find suggestions that just as Passion of the Christ derived from the Gospel of John’s account of the Crucifixion, Apocalypto continues the Johannine vision by conjuring a Mesoamerican corollary for the Book of Revelation (the film’s title derives from the Greek word that means revelation).

In this view, Revelation and the Mayan book the Popol Vuh (from which Gibson reportedly took elements of his script) both point toward the imminent collapse of world civilization, prior to the return of Jesus Christ, aka Quetzalcoatl the plumed serpent. As occultists worldwide know, the Mayans actually put a date on this collapse: it will happen at the winter solstice of 2012. (If you find any of this amusing, don’t miss Daniel Pinchbeck’s wacky new book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl.)

So does Mel’s latest mark the impending end of the world as we know it? Hard to say for certain. But it sure does make for a bang-up start to this holiday movie season.