Dir: Mel Gibson. US. 2006.136mins.

True to the pre-release PR spin and healthy industrybuzz, Mel Gibson's Apocalyptois less of a stodgy history lesson and more of a fleet-footed action adventure- albeit one with a highly unusual setting in the world of the ancient Maya.The action is sometimes thrilling and the evocation of the Maya's mysteriousand violent civilisation is impressive. But it verymuch remains to be seen whether those elements can outweigh the film'scommercial and creative liabilities - among them the subtitled Maya-languagedialogue, a mostly unknown cast and Gibson's recently tarnished public image -and turn Apocalyptointo another unlikely hit for its maverick director-producer and his IconProductions.

Disney's Buena Vista optimistically opens the film on 2,500 North Americanscreens this weekend, on the back of a marketing campaign aimed, like that forGibson's The Passion OfThe Christ, at niche groups as well as mainstream moviegoers. Highaudience awareness should ensure a strong opening, but in the long run Apocalypto may dowell to match the $75.6m domestic gross achieved by Gibson's previoushistorical action movie, the Oscar-winning Braveheart.

Independents that havelicensed the film from Icon will release Apocalypto in most internationalmarkets in the New Year, and they may find the blend of history and action tobe a stronger draw for non-US audiences (Braveheart reached almost $135moutside North America). Results could beparticularly strong in the Central American territories where the Maya onceruled and in the rest of Latin America.

Awards could, of course,make a big difference to the global box office. The film is eligible for theforeign-language Golden Globe and should be a strong contender; but in theOscar race, where it will have to compete with English-language entries, itseems likely to remain an outsider.

The script by Gibson andfirst-time feature writer Farhad Safiniais set in the early 16th century, when Mayan civilisationwas in decline. The story focuses on Jaguar Paw (Youngblood), a young husbandand father living in a small jungle village. When raiders led by the fearsomeZero Wolf (Trujillo)attack the village, Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and child before beingcaptured. Taken to a city of vast pyramids and worried citizens, he narrowlyescapes being sacrificed to the Maya gods. But before he can return to thejungle and rescue his family he must escape Zero Wolf and his brutal warriors.

In its opening scenes, Apocalypto makesan unashamed play for the mainstream audience with farcical sex humour and even a grumpy mother-in-law character. ButGibson also introduces the bigger themes suggested by the title: the sense ofimpending doom in a civilisation that is destroyingitself from within (modern parallels may be intended but they are barely hintedat in the action).

The big themes resurfacefrom time to time, and they're brought to mind with a jolt in the story'slast-minute surprise twist. Yet the film rarely makes its historical contextexplicit and doesn't manage to interweave it with the hero's personal narrativein the way that Braveheartdid.

Instead, Apocalypto becomes theessentially timeless story of a man trying to protect what he loves fromdestruction, though the story is made to seem fresher by the unusual milieu.

There are some terrific setpieces, among them the pyramid-top sacrifice sequence (one of the most gruesomepassages in a very gruesome film), Jaguar Paw's escape over a giant waterfalland his flight from Zero Wolf through the jungle. Their effect is heightened bythe vivid and kinetic digital video cinematography (using Panavision'snew Genesis camera system) of Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves).

Often, though, Gibson letssuch sequences run on too long - literally, in the case of Jaguar Paw and ZeroWolf's drawn-out foot chase - or go over the top with blood-spurting gore.

The casting of mostlyinexperienced Mexican and Central American performers, with a few NativeAmerican actors from the USand Canadain lead roles, works surprisingly well. In his acting debut, Youngblood givesJaguar Paw an impressive physicality and an effective mix of cockiness andfear. And US veteran Trujillo (most recentlyseen in The New World) is neatlymenacing as Zero Wolf.

Production company
Icon Productions

US distribution
Touchstone Pictures/Buena Vista Pictures

International distribution
Icon International

Executive producers
Ned Dowd
Vicki Christianson

Mel Gibson
Bruce Davey

Mel Gibson
Farhad Safinia

Dean Semler

Production design
Tom Sanders

John Wright

James Horner

Main cast
Rudy Youngblood
Raoul Trujillo
Rodolfo Palacios
Dalia Hernandez