What was Mel Gibson thinking? That if people would pay $611,899,420 to see a film in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin, they might pony up a similar amount for a film in Mayan? He forgot one thing, which was in The Nazz. But most of the other elements were in place, the fixation on violence and torture, in particular. The only thing it was really missing was Mel himself, getting the shit kicked out of him. He likes that. Instead, we have a guy named Jaguar Paw getting the shit kicked out of him. And Mel had the last laugh. Though this didn’t become the monster hit that The Passion of the Christ did, it made about $100,000,000 over its $40,000,000 budget (most of it Mel’s own money, according to the rumor).
I have to say, he got a lot of mileage out of his money. The old saying in Hollywood is “put every dollar up there on the screen.” He filmed this in the jungles of Mexico, and on a huge set he built there, with up to 700 extras—multiplied by CGI to look like many thousands more. The movie is an absolute masterpiece of set and costume design, and most especially, make-up. The DVD extra, “Becoming Mayan,” concentrates on these tech aspects, which are what I most want in a DVD extra for a film as complex as this. They had as many as 250 make-up artists working every day on the main actors and the 700 extras, with very extensive stuff to apply, including whole-body tattoos and literally thousands of phony piercings and scarification. Every extra had a lot of this stuff, such as huge plugs through the ears and nose rings. It was a hell of a job. Lee and I saw about a dozen of the costumes on display at the Fashion Institute downtown. Amazing!
So the look of the film is beyond reproach, stunning, a real benchmark in the cinema. But what about the rest of it? Not much, I’m afraid. It’s really two movies, one set in the jungle with only a few characters, and one on the big set with the huge cast. Both movies drown in blood and brutality. Sure, the Mayas were brutal, as were the Aztecs, and I guess the point—underlined by a quotation about rotting from within at the beginning of the film—is that brutal regimes like this can’t last. But Mel enjoys it so much. Myself, I get a bit tired of seeing severed heads roll down from pyramids, and beating hearts ripped from chests, or getting a head’s-eye view of what’s it like to be decapitated and held up for the crowd to cheer. The chase through the jungle as Jaguar Paw escapes from the slaving Mayas is well-done, but again, too much brutality.
I understand Gibson’s next movie might be about Vasco Núñez de Balboa. If so, I can make a prediction here: Ol’ Vasco will get the shit kicked out of him.