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MOVIE REVIEW

Gibson leads a brutal yet transporting Mayan journey

Mel Gibson may be a lunatic, but he's our lunatic, and while I wouldn't wish him behind the wheel of a car after happy hour or at a B'nai Brith function anytime, behind a camera is another matter.

"Apocalypto," his new film, is ridiculous and foolhardy; it has the grandiose ambition that comes from personally clearing $600 million on your last movie. It's a two-hours-plus celebrity-free period epic about men running through the rainforest in loincloths -- in Yucatec, with subtitles -- and at times I found myself howling from the sheer derangement of the thing.

But here's the catch: The movie transports you. It's overbaked, and it piles on the violence until you have to cringe or laugh in disbelief, but it immerses you fully in its harsh, luxuriant world. Say what you will about Gibson, but he's a genuine filmmaker, and "Apocalypto" gallops along the thin line between the deluded and the inspired with such conviction that you're yanked into its wake.

The director, who wrote the script with Farhad Safinia, sets his story in a rough Eden: the Yucatan peninsula in the early 1500s, before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. (It's also the period of the Maya's "post-classic" decline, which Gibson acknowledges with an opening quote from historian Will Durant : "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." How this relates to the movie we're about to see remains rather fuzzy.)

"Apocalypto" begins with a frenzied hunt through the forest -- highlighted by what stands as the first tapir-cam in the history of the cinema, thank you -- after which the animal organs are divvied up and we get to know the guys. There's Blunted (Jonathan Brewer) and Curl Nose (Amilcar Ramirez ), Smoke Frog (Israel Contreras Vasquez ) and Cocoa Leaf (Israel Rios ), Donner and Blitzen. There's the wise old leader Flint Sky (the imposing Morris Bird) and his son Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), the latter lean and resourceful. Since his piercings and tattoos are the least baroque of the bunch, he must be the hero.

The group gets back to their village in time to be overrun by a raiding party led by the fearsome Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo ). The assault is extremely bloody and distressing; Gibson does like his war games. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son (Carlos Emilio Baez ) from the invaders before he is taken prisoner with the rest of his tribe and marched off to slave labor in the mines of the city.

It's during that arduous trek that you begin to appreciate what Gibson is after. The journey is really from pre-history to the pinnacle of Maya civilization, and it is an astonishing sequence, as fully visualized and as rich in pomp and circumstance as the finest old-school Hollywood epics. It just has more severed heads.

The sequence culminates at the top of a towering ziggurat, where "Apocalypto" drops hints about the power-mongering manipulations of the priestly ruling class. Mostly, though, we're here for the gore. In all his movies -- the ones he has starred in and certainly the ones he has directed -- Gibson sees violence as a lamentable truth of human existence, but he also digs it. A lot. So why have one pulsing human heart torn out of a chest when you can have three?

Still, the wallowing seems more germane to "Apocalypto" than in a story about, say, a man who embodied the Christian God's love for humanity. In its first half, the movie aspires to brutal Homeric poetry, with James Horner's score pounding the drums and Dean Semler's cinematography swooping and soaring; this is a foundation myth with a touch of decline-and-fall, and all that keeps it from taking full flight are the flat English translations, more "Entourage" than "Odyssey."

The second half of the film is a prolonged chase sequence, and the going gets silly at times. As Jaguar Paw staggers homeward, pursuers hot on his trail, "Apocalypto" unwittingly becomes a game of Ten Little Meso-Americans, and our suspension of disbelief threatens to snap. On the other hand, maybe it is possible to outrun a jaguar when you've lost several pints of blood.

The violence in these scenes is creative to the point of absurdity: Gibson shows us what that jaguar looks like biting into a human face because -- well, because he can. The filmmaking turns primitive, too, and the movie boils down to hero, villain, and a damsel figuratively tied to the tracks. (Not too figuratively: Jaguar Paw's wife is stuck in a pit and the rains have begun. And her water just broke. She's having a good hair day, though.)

This is exciting without being terribly involving; by now you're outside "Apocalypto" peering in and occasionally having a giggle. Gibson throws one last sociopolitical curveball at the end, but the oh-wow effect it delivers has little bearing on the story.

If you have the stomach for it, though -- or if you like keeping in touch with the works of one of our wealthier outsider artists and/or don't mind funding an anti-Semite -- "Apocalypto" should be seen. Gibson is unique in modern pop culture: He's a troubled, self-made visionary with reprehensible personal ideas and real creative gifts, and he's financially free to do what he pleases. This is a dangerous and illuminating position, and where it will lead I haven't the foggiest.

It's fascinating to watch, though. Gibson may even turn out to be our generation 's flawed, outsized Charles Foster Kane; if so, "Apocalypto" could be his Xanadu, cluttered with intermittent marvels. God help us if he ever finds his Rosebud.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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