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Stunning ‘Apocalypto’ is Gibson's best film ever

Filmgoers who pledged to avoid the controversial director's movies after his anti-Semitic rant this summer will be missing out on a great movie.

Just a few months ago, Barbara Walters declared she would not see another Mel Gibson film. Thanks to his appalling anti-Semitic drunken rant, a lot of people made the same pledge.

If they follow through, they’ll be missing the best picture he’s directed. His stunning new jungle chase movie, “Apocalypto,” is more accomplished than “Braveheart,” more interesting than “The Man Without a Face,” and less gratuitously gory than “The Passion of the Christ.”

And unlike “The Passion,” this Mayan epic can hardly be accused of anti-Semitism, which has compromised the careers of artists from Richard Wagner to T.S. Eliot. Should we deny ourselves Wagner’s “Ring” or Eliot’s poetry because of the prejudices of their creators? It’s a question that can be debated endlessly.

Meanwhile, “Apocalypto” is as thrilling as any adventure movie we’ve seen in years. Although the narrative has a myth-like simplicity, it doesn’t feel overextended at 138 minutes, thanks to Gibson’s ability to establish characters quickly and shape each scene in a way that creates a headlong momentum.

All the actors are unknowns, but they’re so consistently strong that they may not remain that way for long. Rudy Youngblood, a 25-year-old Native American who plays the hero, Jaguar Paw, has piercing eyes and a remarkable presence. When he’s kidnapped by another tribe, and his son and pregnant wife hide out underground, he promises he’ll return to save them. We have no reason to doubt his pledge.

Helping to establish Jaguar’s authority is a Cassandra figure, a diseased child who condemns the kidnappers with a series of ominous warnings. When they’re fulfilled, Jaguar is saved from human sacrifice, and he leads his tormentors on a merry chase that’s reminiscent of “The Naked Prey” as well as Br’er Rabbit’s tricky Briar Patch.

Gibson and his first-time co-writer, Farhad Safinia, have come up with their own vision of 15th-Century Mayan civilization, which may or may not have anything to do with historical fact. For the most part, the setting is used as the background for a series of close calls and daring feats that suggest Saturday-matinee cliffhangers rather than a serious attempt to recreate a dying Mayan culture.

The actors speak Yucatec Maya, which is translated into English subtitles that can be jarringly modern. “Move it” sounds a little odd in this context, and so does one hilarious profanity. But so little of “Apocalypto” relies on dialogue that Gibson ends up using a lot of silent-film shorthand to tell his story.

The cinematographer is the Australian Dean Semler, who won an Oscar for “Dances With Wolves” and this time uses a handheld camera to tear through the jungle in a way that’s just short of dizzying. Whenever you think he’s gone too far, he pulls back and gives you breathing space. The same could be said of Gibson’s direction, which has never seemed this smooth before.