As directors, there's more than one similarity between Mel Gibson and Kamal Hassan; both of them are talented and ambitious story-tellers with unique visions, both of them have a penchant for violence (of the gory kind, where blood sprays from the throat, and spears jut through flesh with the sickening sound of metal meeting flesh), both of them are comfortable tackling risky and controversial topics - so on and so forth. Oh, and neither of them shy away from making the odd sexual innuendo even in the most serious of movies. But neither of them are completely there as great directors, though both of them certainly having the making of great directors. Their respective directorial ventures, though certainly different from (and mostly a notch above) the run-of-the-mill stuff, and often featuring breathtaking moments / scenes, often fail to reach the heights that you'd expect they would. 'Apocalypto' is no different in this regard.
At its heart, 'Apocaypto' is a 'chase' movie. Of course, the director's conceit is that it is set amongst Mayan tribes, and hence offers a fresh (and rather interesting, one has to admit) look at an age-old cinematic concept. The film's hero, Jaguar Paw, who is probably an ancient ancestor of John Rambo, is snatched away from a joyous existence with his tribe, and hauled away to a 'modern' city where he is to be sacrificed before the sun-god, with a witchdoctor and a crowd-baying-for-blood in tow. This pretty much makes up the first half of the film, and the rest is about Jaguar Paw making his way home to his pregnant wife and son, who are stuck in a well.
It is entirely to Gibson's credit that he almost makes this work. The entire portion of the movie leading up to the siege of the village is the Mayan version of what a Sathyan Anthikkad, or a Bharathiraja regularly portray. Of course, the whole sequence about the aphrodisiac is more like from a '90s David Dhawan flick, but the bit about the young wife washing her mouth totally cracked me up. The invasion of the village, the killing of Jaguar Paw's father, and the whole sequence with the women is pretty brutal (especially the one with the woman who resists). The violence is unflinching, and the grueling journey from the village to the great city is beautifully picturized.
Unfortunately, the move lets you down in the second half. After the awesome escape sequence, and the breathtaking sequence with the jaguar, the move heads steadily downhill and never recovers. To somebody fresh from the horrors of watching Rambo muttachan (grandpa) gunning down people yet again, the hide 'n' seek in the jungle holds no new aspects. The insertion of gruesome violence yet again does not help the cause either. The only bit of suspense is about the wife stuck in the well, but by then you are beyond caring - there have been too many heads rolling down the steps, throats slit, people bitten by snakes, veins cut, heads hammered...you get the picture.
Like I had said earlier, the Gibson-Kamal connection is something that I have felt earlier too (though I think Kamal fancies himself more as a desi Quentin Tarantino). A lot of the imagery here reminded me of Virumandi - the haunting image of a woman stuck in a well while there's a massacre going on around her being the most pointed image, of course. Another point, IMHO, was the unnecessary use of gruesome and at times sadistic violence - as the best movies so often remind you, what's left unsaid and unseen often has the most impact, and its never more true than in this movie.
The Special Features section of the movie is a virtual feast. The amount of research they have put into the movie is staggering, and that would be an understatement. The tattoos, jewelery, clothes, hairdos, architecture, religious beliefs and the weapons - oh yeah, definitely the weapons - have been painstakingly researched. The technical team is so good that they just suck you up into the ambiance of the movie. The rain-forests look awesome, and the camera work is unobtrusive, yet fantastic.
In short: A great watch, but not for the faint-hearted.