starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen
screenplay by Charles Leavitt
directed by Edward Zwick
starring Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead
screenplay by Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
directed by Mel Gibson
by Walter Chaw After sending Matthew Broderick to head a Negro battalion in the Civil War and Tom Cruise to witness--and survive--the end of Feudal Japan, director Edward Zwick dispatches Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly to Sierra Leone and its own diamond-fuelled Civil War to moralize endlessly from the superior ethical vantage afforded by time and privilege. (That they also lend a much-needed nougat centre to Blood Diamond's thin chocolate coating goes without saying.) The Denzel Washington/Ken Watanabe token this time around is the oft-similarly-abused Djimon Hounsou: as the DC Comics-sounding Solomon Vandy, Hounsou seeks to trade a rare pink diamond for the life of his son, who's been molded by the evil Sierra Leonians into a soulless murdering/raping machine.
Meanwhile, DiCaprio's South African fortune hunter Archer meets his match in humanitarian reporter Maddy (Connelly); it's the kind of dead weight from which flaccid romantic misadventures are made and reminds, if anything, of Joaquin Phoenix's cameo in Hotel Rwanda as a ventriloquist dummy for the filmmaker's belated activism. Maddy's an Aeolian Harp and Zwick is her hot air, and her scenes are the only ones in the film that don't resemble some ultra-violent, exotic serial interested in making a horror movie of the rest of the world and ennobled white knights in shining armour of the enlightened, Aryan Westerner. Archer's internal conflict in this context, then, isn't a nod to complexity (or a telegraph that Blood Diamond is his redemption story)--it's a statement that the worst of Us still has more power to change the darkest parts of the world than the best of Them. On second thought, take this film as sad proof of the point.
Women and children are butchered by kid-aged sociopaths, hands are lopped off, grand African vistas are fetishized, and big-budget chases give the picture the lustre of an old-fashioned Hollywood prestige piece--which, of course, Blood Diamond is, packed as it is to bloat with clichés and blacks as savage savages or the more palatable noble kind. It breaks its arm patting itself on the back, packing all the troubles of an exploited area into a series of facile, queasily pornographic images that exploit the area anew for its usefulness as a backdrop to two white people flirting together (see also: The Interpreter). Indeed, it seems there's no end to Sierra Leone's troubles. Like every Zwick film, Blood Diamond gathers a sort of grand epic momentum as it goes along, taking full advantage of its panoramic settings and demonstrating what feels like genuine glee in its bloodletting--and like every Zwick film, there comes a point when its "based on real events" vérité touches on a few troubling representational quagmires. Should the slaughter of countless crossfire innocents be quite this titillating? The trouble might be that there's nothing illicit about the pleasures of Blood Diamond--that whatever guilt that might possibly arise from the rock sitting on your wife's wedding ring is symbolically assuaged by the spiritual awakening of surrogate spoiler Archer (twice besmirched: once as a soldier of fortune, once as an Afrikaner); by the silent villain of people richer than you (and maybe black, too, hence the invocation of "bling"); and by the familiar final-reel teat Zwick provides awards-season audiences.
No such chance to feel like they gave at the office awaits the unfortunates gathered for the genuinely-insane Mel Gibson's latest Guignol epic Apocalypto, a gore-steeped allegory of a theocracy ruled by arcane rituals, violence, and fear. Chases abound here as in Blood Diamond, the best of them involving a hungry jaguar that, to hear Gibson tell it, was the germ that sprouted into the film. The pictures also share the story of the noble savage overcoming impossible odds to reunite with his family: Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is abducted from his subsequently raped-and-pillaged village by a master race of Mayans, managing to hide his kid and pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) before the atrocities unfold and embarking on an odyssey back to their side when he miraculously escapes sacrifice in the capital.
Said odyssey (like the one in Rescue Dawn--the lesson of late is "Don't lose your shoes") involves Gibson's favourite mortifications of flaying and gaping side-wounds as great spurting geysers of blood drench the lush jungle setting in Gibson's martyr complex and rage. A cheese-fest epic full of breathtakingly stupid point-of-view shots, whip-pans, avalanches of human heads, and still-beating hearts shown to owners, Mola Ram-style, Apocalypto resembles a fever dream of Indian-fear not entirely unlike the legendary Italian exploitation flick Cannibal Holocaust. It's a strange brew that supports both the grindhouse charnel of The Passion of the Christ and the obscene naturalism of Werner Herzog, and I have to believe that it's only because of Gibson's persecutorial madness that Apocalypto coheres at all. Gibson might not be an admirable man, but he's turning into that rarity of a distinct filmmaker with the resources to do any damned thing he wants.
What most disappoints about Apocalypto is that it is, ironically, not particularly risible in any way. Its usefulness as allegory is blunted by its excess and insurmountable alienness (and, it goes without saying, its not being about Christ), while its decision to present itself entirely in a (modern) Indian dialect provides a further documentary remove. The very qualities--the detail and cultural subtleties--that drummed millions into genuflection for The Passion of the Christ feed into the familiarity afforded Apocalypto by its indulgence in colonial fear and loathing. No question that it means to be something more than a gruelling, kinetic chase through a train of thunderously-choreographed blockbuster moments, but because that's precisely what it is, the closest the film comes to delicacy is in its occasional inspiration of unintentional laughter.
Still, Apocalypto slots in solidly next to a spate of caveman action flicks from the last couple of years: stories about civilizations' end (and this film begins with Will Durant's famous post-mortem for the fall of the Roman Empire: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within") that have its survivors reconstructing the world along Old Testament guidewires. Just as Gibson's Christ is in steely ass-kicking mode when he rises from the dead in the closing moments of The Passion of the Christ, so, too, is Apocalypto constantly informed by the looming arrival of Spanish Conquistadors and the sanguine imposition of some more of that old-time religion. On second thought, I wonder if it's not a pretty useful allegory for the United States in the first part of the 21st century after all. Originally published: December 8, 2006.