I don’t want to forgive Mel Gibson. I’m not talking about the anti-semitic garbage the old lush may or may not have uttered last July; I’ve always felt critics had no place in the bed and interrogation rooms of Hollywood. No, in my eyes, Gibson’s biggest crime was 2004’s sado-masochistic The Passion of the Christ, a film that, in a shameless attempt to stoke evangelical Christian fervour and spending power, exploited, to the point of pornography, the torture of Jesus.

So I was ready to hate Gibson’s latest film, Apocalypto. But I couldn’t. Even though it’s rife with the same gratuitous gore Gibson displayed in The Passion and even though the film takes dubious liberties with the historical record,Apocalypto is an undeniably captivating and refreshing movie.

Set after the mysterious collapse of Mayan civilization, and before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in Meso-America, Gibson’s film examines what happens when a small, Edenic jungle village is raided by a war party from the amoral, decaying city centre. Yes, all of the dialogue is in Yucatec Mayan. And yes, Gibson’s morality has no room for shades of gray. But the chase scenes he depicts (and the parallel personal journey his protagonist goes through as it unfolds) makes for an astonishingly potent cinematic experience.

In fact, Apocalypto is the best chase film I’ve ever seen. When the marauders kill his father and whisk him off to the capital, young Jaguar Paw (Ruby Youngblood) believes his life is over. The city is a Boschian nightmare, where human sacrifice and enslavement rule the day. (The film offers breathtaking visuals—hard to believe the film was shot on digital.) Once there, he and his fellow young men are made the prey in a barbaric manhunt. When Jaguar Paw escapes, killing the head of the party’s (Raoul Trujillo)’s son, a frantic and deadly foot race begins that carries us through the remaining hour and half. The chase involves plunging over waterfalls, jaguar attacks and sprung tapir traps. Set to James Horner’s pulsing and intensely primal score, Gibson’s game of predator and prey is riveting. Say what you want about the guy, Mel knows how to conduct an action sequence.

That said, the action alone would have been dull were it not layered with the young protagonist’s gradual self-discovery. As he flees his pursuers, racing back to the village where his wife and child still lie at the bottom of a well, the Jaguar Paw we saw in the film’s early moments— a young man consumed by fear and confusion—is replaced by something more hardened and mature.

This may sound cheesy. Where’s the irony? But Apocalypto is a throwback. It’s the kind of movie that believes in the qualities of epic most of us disposed of long ago. And while some critics might tease out parallels to the Christ story, Apocalypto has more in common with pre-Christian oral epics.

Indeed, Mel Gibson himself is evidently not living in the 21th century. His anachronistic world view is largely responsible for the viler and more childish aspects of his personality and art. But it’s also responsible for making him one of the few major Hollywood filmmakers to stand apart from the status quo.

Apocalyto is now playing at the Paramount (259 Richmond St. W.), Silvercity Yonge and Eglinton (2300 Yonge St.) and others