‘Apocalypto’: Action Central, By Kurt Loder

Mel Gibson delivers a savage masterpiece. Also: Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Blood Diamond,' an African horror story.

“Apocalypto” is the most electrifying pure-action movie since George Miller’s first two “Mad Max” films, back around the dawn of the ’80s. Those pictures launched the career of “Apocalypto” director Mel Gibson as an international action star, and no doubt he learned a lot from the gifted Miller (who now traffics in talking pigs and penguins). But Gibson has since cultivated his own savage talent for the action genre, and it’s displayed here more vividly than ever.

This is a movie unlike any other I can think of. Consider: a picture set in a primitive jungle culture some 500 years ago, in the twilight of the great Mayan Empire, and cast with unknown actors speaking a long-obscure Mayan dialect. It sounds like a prescription for an audience siesta; but from the very first scene — a hell-bent chase through the rainforest that ends with a sudden, slamming shock — the movie grabs you by the throat and yanks you into its world. Relating its story almost entirely through action, and through characters who are carefully defined by distinct personality attributes, the movie has some of the pure kinetic flow of silent cinema. (The dialogue is subtitled, but even an unlettered viewer could follow the plot with little difficulty.)

It’s a simple tale. Deep in the jungle, in what is now Mexico (where the movie was shot), a peaceful village of hunters and gatherers is ferociously attacked by a band of marauding Mayan warriors. These are very scary guys, festooned with clinking beads and clonking animal skulls, their skin pierced and ritually scarred and covered with thick black tattoos. After laying waste to the village and many of its inhabitants with their torches, clubs and axes, they begin rounding up the survivors. One of these is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), who manages to lead his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son off to a deep pit, into which he lowers them on a rope to hide. Jaguar himself is caught, and, like the rest of the survivors, is tied by the neck to a long pole and dragged off through the forest. Before they depart, though, one especially hideous warrior notices the rope fastened above the pit where Jaguar has hidden his family. With an evil smirk, he cuts this lifeline and drops it down into the darkness.

The prisoners endure a long, cruel march, and along the way, many terrible things happen. Finally, the group arrives, battered and gasping, at a vast Mayan city (an astonishing recreation, constructed in consultation with an archeologist, Dr. Richard Hansen, whose specialty is early Mayan civilization). The city and the farmlands surrounding it have been parched by a long drought, and in a temple atop a towering pyramid, a blood-splattered priest (Fernando Hernandez, who plays a similar role in “The Fountain”) is petitioning the serpent god Kukulk’an for rain. His supplications involve an unending succession of human sacrifices. One by one, the victims are splayed across an altar to have their chests torn open and their still-beating hearts pulled out and tossed onto a nearby brazier. Then they are decapitated, and their heads are bounced down the many steps leading from the top of the pyramid to the crowd of raving subjects below. This spectacularly gruesome sequence (which echoes the horrific dismemberment at the end of Gibson’s 1995 “Braveheart,” not to mention the Thuggee sacrifice in the second Indiana Jones movie) encapsulates the director’s audacious action aesthetic: All of the horrific things that are traditionally left out of such tales of barbarian depredations, Gibson happily crams in.

Jaguar’s heart and head are spared when a sudden eclipse of the sun signals to the priest that the god has been sated, and that rain will now come. But Jaguar’s ordeal isn’t over. He and the remaining villagers are taken to a long, narrow arena, the faraway end of which opens into the jungle. They are told to run for their freedom, and as they do, their Mayan tormentors shower them with arrows and spears and rocks hurled from catapults. Several more terrible things happen. Jaguar, however, manages to reach the sheltering jungle. Momentarily stunned by his survival, the furious Mayans soon give chase. The rest of the movie focuses on Jaguar’s desperate attempt to find his way back to the pit where his wife and child are trapped — and to fend off his pursuers with increasingly inventive stratagems. Along the way, many, many more terrible things happen, all of them quite exciting.

The movie is often brutally violent, it’s true. But unlike the pathological sadism of Gibson’s last film, “The Passion of the Christ,” the violence here is not unrelenting. (There are even occasional spurts of humor.) And the extreme nature of the mayhem actually seems appropriate — this is, after all, an extremely brutal world.

But the movie achieves levels of pictorial beauty that lift it high above the normal run of action filmmaking. The superb cinematographer Dean Semler, working with a sophisticated new Panavision digital camera system, sets a fresh standard for ravishing high-definition color composition. His long-lens depth-of-field compression adds a straight-at-you rush to some of the chase scenes, and his ability to sustain long tracking shots through the dense tropical foliage is a triumph of technical logistics.

The picture is filled with unforgettable imagery (when was the last time you watched a woman treat a deep gash in a child’s leg by gently stuffing live bugs into it?). And Gibson and his co-writer, Farhad Safinia, have come up with some really zingy lines. (“When I catch him, I will peel his skin and make him watch me wear it.”) There are also some especially resonant vignettes. The interlude in which the Mayan warriors and their prisoners pass through a plague village, and a little girl emerges from among the festering corpses to utter an awful prophecy, is a scene of piercing eeriness.

“Apocalypto” isn’t a movie for everyone, Lord knows. Those who dislike even the thought of a big, black jungle cat chewing the face off a fallen warrior should probably see another movie, or stay home and tend to their knitting. For action fans, though, this is as good as it gets.

“Blood Diamond”: Conflicted

Any movie that shines a light on human calamity is to be commended, obviously. And “Blood Diamond,” set in the West African country of Sierra Leone in 1999, in the midst of a barbarous civil war in which tens of thousands of people were slaughtered and millions displaced, is certainly commendable. The director, Edward Zwick, never flinches from showing us the full bloodthirsty heartlessness of the anti-government rebels as they attack peaceful villages and shoot down defenseless women and children, often at point-blank range. These killers, many of them just boys themselves, are barely recognizable as human beings. In one scene, we watch them lining up terrified villagers to have their hands hacked off with machetes. (“No more hands, no more voting,” says the leering rebel leader.) None of this depravity is played for the bent kicks of a simple-minded action movie: It’s raw and appalling, and it punches home the horror of Africa’s unending misery more vividly than the nightly news ever could.

The movie is also informative about the illicit trade in diamonds — “conflict diamonds,” as they came to be called — that financed this butchery. Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, is rich in diamonds, and control of the diamond trade was a central strategic goal on both sides in the war. In the film, when the rebels seize control of diamond fields, they use the gems to buy weapons from interloping white mercenaries, who are then hired by the equally brutal government to oust the rebels — and are paid for this service with more diamonds. Thus was a national catastrophe perpetuated for more than a decade.

It’s too bad the movie forefronts this gripping history with a somewhat unlikely love story involving two white people: an amoral Rhodesian gun-runner named Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a sinewy performance) and an idealistic war-junkie journalist named Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, beautiful even under fire). Also circling the action are a reptilian white mercenary chieftain called Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), by whom Danny was once employed, and a vicious rebel leader called Captain Poison (David Harewood). These four are fatefully drawn together around a displaced fisherman named Solomon Vandy (played by the estimable African actor Djimon Hounsou, a native of Benin). When Solomon’s village was attacked and destroyed by rebels, his wife and two children escaped, but he himself was dragged off to a diamond field by his captors and forced to help pan for the precious stones in a muddy stream, under the hostile eyes of murderous rebel thugs. One day, Solomon found an unusually large and very rare pink diamond, and managed to bury it on the shore.

Captain Poison realizes Solomon has found the stone, but can’t make him tell where it’s hidden before a troop of government soldiers appears and hauls them off to jail — where Danny also happens to be temporarily incarcerated. Danny learns about Solomon’s buried treasure, and manages to get both of them sprung from the lockup. He wants to take Solomon back to the riverbank to dig up the diamond and then split the proceeds from its sale. For Danny, this money would allow him to finally escape from his native Africa to a better life. The odious Captain Poison, dogging their steps, has similar thoughts. (“You think I am a devil,” he says, “but only because I have lived in hell. I want out.”) Colonel Coetzee has learned about the hidden diamond, too, and he just wants it because conflict diamonds are his business, and this one is fabulously valuable.

But Solomon sees the diamond as a way to save his wife and daughter from a teeming refugee camp, and to liberate his young son, who is being trained by the rebels to become a cold-blooded killer. (The scenes in which small boys are instructed by these insurgents in how to “be a man” by cutting down helpless people with machine guns have a horrible, gut-curdling power.)

Meanwhile, Maddy has struck up an acquaintance with Danny, and sees him as a useful source for her investigative story on the trade in conflict diamonds. She knows the diamonds of Sierra Leone are being smuggled into neighboring Liberia to be sold. And she knows that the international diamond industry is complicit in this trade — in part because of its determination to keep as many diamonds as possible off the market in order to maintain artificially high prices for finished stones. Danny, on the other hand, sees Maddy and her press credentials as a way of assuring safe passage for him and Solomon to return to the site of the buried diamond.

In the production notes for “Blood Diamond,” director Zwick makes it clear that he intended the movie to be an entertainment, not a political screed, and he has succeeded: The picture’s considerable political illumination glimmers through a story told in colorful locales (it was shot for the most part in South Africa and Mozambique) with lots of bang-boom-crash action. But the love affair between Danny and Maddy seems odd. However useful they might be to one another in professional terms, there seems little to draw them together romantically. He makes his living in a trade that she loathes — and yet within what seems like a matter of weeks of on-and-off encounters, she falls deeply in love with him. Jennifer Connelly, who was already a fine actress when she made her movie debut, at the age of 14, in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” is now, at age 36, a master of detailed characterization; but even she can’t make this weakly motivated relationship entirely persuasive.

DiCaprio’s character seems clearly modeled on the sort of good-bad guys once played by Humphrey Bogart (particularly the cynical Rick in “Casablanca”). But whereas Bogart was able to signal the reemergence of a vestigial moral code with his eyes and subtle changes of expression, the moral evolution of DiCaprio’s Danny — his increasing concern for Solomon and his purported love for Maddy — feels like a scripted given, with which we’re expected to go along.

Nevertheless, “Blood Diamond,” although it’s set in the late ’90s, conveys a message that’s still sadly applicable today. In 2002, following a United Nations resolution to end the trade in conflict diamonds, an agreement was reached among the major diamond-producing countries and the international diamond industry called the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KCPS). This has in fact served to reduce the amount of conflict diamonds entering the legitimate diamond market. However, as Amnesty International reported last June, “Despite the progress made … the KCPS has not been able to fully address, monitor and end the international trade in conflict diamonds.” And so the relentless foreign exploitation of Africa’s rich mineral resources goes on, and the horrors inflicted upon African people, little noted by the purchasers of wedding rings and hip-hop bling in the West, continues.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Apocalypto” and “Blood Diamond.”

Visit Movies on MTV.com for more from Hollywood, including news, reviews, interviews and more.

Want trailers? Visit the Trailer Park for the newest, scariest and funniest coming attractions anywhere.