Hollywood’s jungle adventure movies really ought to have become smarter since the days of such geopolitically clueless 1930s entertainments as Tarzan: the Ape Man and the The Green Goddess. And, to a certain extent, they have. This week’s examples of the form, Blood Diamond and Apocalypto, are crisply directed and reasonably exciting, thanks largely to the simulated combat-photography style—hand-held camera, fast pans, quick cuts—characteristic of contemporary action flicks. The music’s gotten better, too: Both James Newton Howard’s Blood Diamond score and the one for James Horner’s Apocalypto are rich soups of indigenous percussion, qawwali vocals, and other semi-exotic sounds, although Horner’s is heavier on throat singing while Howard’s periodically backslides into violin flourishes. Finally, though, both films feel a bit musty. While their technique is up-to-date, their notions of the noble native lag behind.
The latest result of thirtysomething co-creator Edward Zwick’s war-movie fixation, Blood Diamond couldn’t be more well-meaning. Set in Sierra Leone during its recent civil war (although filmed mostly in safer and more scenic Mozambique), the movie graphically demonstrates the devastation wrought by the conflict-diamond trade that underwrites violent coups and intractable civil wars. When the battle comes to his town, simple fisherman Solomon Vandy (Amistad’s Djimon Hounsou) loses his freedom and his family: He’s threatened with the amputation of his hand—a practice introduced to Africa by Belgian colonists, we’re told in one of the movie’s many didactic asides—but then dragooned to sift for diamonds. A little later, Solomon’s prepubescent son Dia (Caruso Kuypers) is conscripted by the rebels, who feed boys lies, abuse, and drugs to break down their reluctance to kill. Solomon finds a huge pinkish diamond and manages to hide it; his quest to recover this treasure, and his wife and children, will drive the plot.
The diamond is central to the story, but Solomon is, of course, secondary. The scenario’s sparkliest gem is charming rogue Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former mercenary who pointedly identifies himself as Rhodesian. (White-run Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe in 1980.) Arrested while attempting to cross the border with diamonds hidden in a live goat’s hide, Danny finds himself in jail with Solomon, who tells him of the big pink. Soon after, Danny meets American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a supposedly hard-shell reporter afflicted with both hot pants and a bleeding heart. Connelly’s seductive manner can melt camera lenses, or at least cameramen, but Maddy is an impossible role. Not only is she supposed to fall instantly for a cold-blooded (if twinkly eyed) killer, but she also has to deliver most of scripter Charles Leavitt’s mini-lectures on African history and American apathy.
Using their connections—Maddy’s with the good guys, Danny’s with the bad ones—the white outsiders help Solomon search for his family and the diamond. Despite the big vistas, it’s a small world. Dia’s psychopathic new commander is Solomon’s mining-camp tormenter, and when Maddy follows her conflict-diamond story to its conclusion, she ensnares no less a luminary than Tony Blair. (Actually, it’s look-alike Michael Sheen, who plays the P.M. in The Queen.) While less romanticized than Zwick’s The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond doesn’t exactly make gallivanting down the middle of a civil war look difficult. Helicopters swoop in at just the right moment, skeptical mercenaries and guerrillas quickly bend to Maddy’s flirtatious gambits, and the satellite phones are more reliable than DiCaprio’s white-southern-African accent.
Although a little too long, Blood Diamond is a respectable example of the edifying war-zone thriller. What it lacks is the fevered energy and frank ambiguity of great front-line films like Volker Schlöndorff’s Circle of Deceit and Oliver Stone’s Salvador, which matched chaos on the street to tumult in the heart, and admitted the impotence of the benevolent foreigner. Instead, Zwick comes on all omnipotent, solving the problems of his characters and of Africa as well. He guides one of his principals to spiritual redemption and another to a conference where he’s accorded a standing ovation before he says a word. (Always mistrust movies that validate their protagonists with a round of on-screen applause.) If only Blood Diamond’s worldview and characterization were as complex as its editing style—that would have been a movie worthy of the mess that European colonialism created, one that even the star of Titanic can’t fix.
As a director, Mel Gibson’s trademark innovation is to take an established genre and Mad Max–imize it. Thus Braveheart was a conventional historical melodrama, but with visceral torture scenes and battle sequences in which maces pounded human skulls to yield brain tartare. And The Passion of the Christ was the Biblical epic mated with the splatter flick, complete with copious amounts of blood, flayed flesh, and squelching sound effects. So Gibson is the logical director to attempt a movie about the Maya, who created a complex civilization with a defining taste for sacrificial blood. Who else to depict rituals in which human hearts are pulled from the chests of living men and decapitated heads are hurled down the steps of towering ziggurats?
Apocalypto opens in the jungle, where a hunting party traps and eviscerates a tapir. Everything that can be done to a beast can be done to a man, so this scene foreshadows the grisly ceremonies that will subsequently occur in the great Mayan city. Yet it also establishes the film’s sense of humor, which is mostly of the macho slapstick variety. The rowdy hunters force the local loser to eat the tapir’s testicles, and later trick the same man into rubbing a caustic herb onto his own genitals. Designed to win over boys who like fast action and broad humor, these scenes are given a patina of anthropology by the fact that the people are speaking (subtitled) Mayan. It’s the same trick Gibson used in The Passion: Tell a story from a modern perspective but purport to being historical by delivering the dialogue in an ancient tongue. (The film was shot in Mexico and Costa Rica, but none of the major players is Mayan.)
The script, credited to Gibson and co-producer Farhad Safinia, recounts a fairly simple story. A raiding party from the city attacks a small jungle village, killing or capturing almost everyone. Jaguar Paw (Oklahoma native Rudy Youngblood) is among those who are bound together and marched to the city, but first he manages to hide his pregnant wife and young son in a cave. The raiders and their prisoners arrive in the city, which is near collapse from drought, deforestation, and plague, and a demented female seer who suggests The Passion’s Satan prophetizes catastrophe. Then several of the men are ritually slaughtered, as a crowd cheers. (This section of the movie is simply a gorier version of the sort of “historical” spectacle pioneered by D.W. Griffith.) Happenstance forestalls the death of Jaguar Paw—let’s call him JP—and he’s offered a chance to free himself on one of the Maya’s notorious playing fields. Apparently, no one ever survives these games, but JP does. He breaks through the desiccated cornfields—and past the fields full of corpses that evoke Cambodia and the Holocaust—and sprints back to his family.
What follows is effectively staged, if entirely to be expected. Wounded but unstoppable, JP runs and runs, evading his pursuers and surmounting physical obstacles. (Does he jump over a raging waterfall? You bet your Popol Vuh.) Through a combination of luck and guile, JP gradually eliminates his enemies, who are dolled up in death-worshipping regalia that also recalls the Mad Max series. Both JP and the camera move at lightning speed but not so fast as to blur the moral: Civilization is doom, and the frontier and the family are salvation. Translate that from the Mayan, and it reads like a classic Western.
Like Braveheart, Apocalypto is a fantasia on historical themes, not a work of history. Set some eight centuries after the actual collapse of Mayan urban culture, the film attempts to link the Maya’s decline to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. Yet Gibson, who’s proclaimed his Christianity both to justify The Passion and as a defense against his apparent anti-Semitism, doesn’t send his hero to be saved by the newly arrived Catholic priests. Instead, he implicitly concedes that Christianity was not a boon to Native Americans by dispatching JP and his family deeper into the forest. Given longstanding Hollywood assumptions about “primitive” culture, that’s probably the safest place for them.CP