APOCALYPTO Flush from making gazillions from The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson used his clout to create a film that under any other circumstances would have been laughed right out of the studio boardroom: a lengthy, subtitled period epic about the Mayan civilization. For a while, it does offer something fresh. Gibson, working from a script he co-wrote with Farhad Safinia, takes us back in time to the waning period of the Mayan civilization, in a small village in which the peaceful inhabitants spend their time hunting for food, absorbing advice from their elders, and playing practical jokes on one another. Chief among the pranksters is Jaguar Paw (an impressive debut by Native American artist and actor Rudy Youngblood), the proud son of one of the village leaders, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead). The serenity of the village is forever shattered on the morning that a far more bloodthirsty band of Mayan warriors -- ones aligned with the ruling class residing in an actual city -- descend upon the jungle dwellers, raping the women, abandoning the children, and dragging the men back to their city to be served up as either slaves or human sacrifices. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son (Carlos Emilio Baez) before being captured himself, and he vows to return to them no matter what it takes. That will take some doing, though, considering he’s chosen to function as the next sacrifice to appease the angry gods. Considering that the Mayan civilization is justly celebrated for its innovations and complexities, it’s puzzling how simplistic these cultural representatives prove to be. Surely, Gibson will allow the story to expand and deepen during the second half? Don’t count on it. It turns out that Gibson isn’t interested in educating either us or himself; instead, Apocalypto degenerates into a straightforward action flick. Worse, the switch to pure action also allows Gibson to indulge in his by-now predictable sadism. Anyone who’s seen Braveheart or The Passion of the Christ (to say nothing of starring vehicles like Payback and The Patriot) senses that nothing titillates the filmmaker as much as pain and destruction, and Apocalypto soon turns into an orgy of unrelenting bloodlust. He can’t just show a jaguar killing a man; he has to show the victim’s face being stretched and ripped off by the savage creature. He can’t simply have another character get shot from behind by an arrow; he has to show said projectile continuing its path through the fellow’s open mouth. Oddly, the picture’s excess of brutality isn’t shocking as much as it’s laughable; because it’s so pronounced and protracted, it ultimately feels no more absurd than the sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a knight tries to keep fighting after his limbs have all been hacked off. If the Python boys ever try to mount a comeback, it’d be advisable to hire Mel Gibson as their “technical consultant” -- he’s definitely cinema’s reigning gore-to guy.