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Mauled by Mel 

Apocalypto takes Gibson's bloodlust south of the border.

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Apocalypto has a faux Greek title and an opening quote from an historian that ruminates on the decline of imperial Rome. It may seem an odd way to comment on the supposed end of an imaginary, unspeakably barbaric Mayan civilization -- but WWJD? Mel Gibson means to be universal.

Not just a walk in the park with Mel and the guys (in this case a cast of mainly Mexican Indians speaking present-day Yucatec), this lavishly punishing picture is the third panel in Gibson's Ordeal triptych. The Martyrdom of the Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ have nothing on The Misadventures of the Jaguar Paw, junior citizen of a generally jovial, practical-joke-loving 16th-century Central American social unit.

Over the course of Apocalypto's 140 subtitled minutes, Jaguar Paw (American actor Rudy Youngblood) endures two calvaries. After the village is overrun, sacked, and more or less crucified by a marauding group of "civilized" Mayans, J.P. is dragged through the jungle, carrying his cross (as well as his brothers) to the Temple of Doom. After he's saved from ritual sacrifice by a timely miracle -- his Mayan captors are so degenerate, they've forgotten the astronomy they invented -- there's an hour of running barefoot, bleeding, back home, where he stashed his pregnant wife and child. J.P. dodges spears, vaults waterfalls, and slogs through quicksand. It's a nonstop sprint -- complete with irate mama jaguar nipping at his keister.

Following the gory trail marked by Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto is a blatantly sadistic spectacle -- albeit not without a certain chivalry. Women are raped and children butchered, but Mel shows no taste for such savagery. Mel is, however, a glutton for male punishment: There's not a man in this movie who isn't scourged, bashed, or punctured -- unless he's disemboweled.

But unlike its predecessors, Apocalypto is unburdened by nationalist or religious piety -- it's pure, amoral sensationalism. By those standards, the most engaging sequence is played in the evil heart of the Mayan sacred city. The place is a monstrous construction site cum marketplace where life is cheap (and so are the extras) and the blood pours over the stone monuments like molasses on Grandma's griddlecakes. It's political too: Gesturing muck-a-mucks in feathered masks rise from their human footstools atop garish temples to address the juju-dancing mob below.

No mean panderer he, Gibson has compared the "fear-mongering" Mayan leadership to "President Bush and his guys" and their ritual human sacrifice to the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq. He may also be recycling material from his canceled mini-series.

"A lot of it, storywise, I just made up," Gibson confessed to the Mexican junketeers who visited his set last year. "And then, oddly, when I checked it out with historians and archaeologists and so forth, it's not that far [off]."

Or far out, for that matter. Irrational as it may be, Mel's sense of history does have a logic: J.P.'s trip to hell ends when the Christians arrive.

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