A look at Mel Gibson's post-''Passion'' crusade -- The ''Lethal Weapon'' star is working on an epic set 500 years ago in Central America

At first, it sounded like something out of a South Park parody: Mel Gibson’s follow-up to The Passion of the Christ will be a bloody epic set 500 years ago in Central America, filmed in an ancient Mayan dialect. It’s called Apocalypto; Gibson is writing, directing, and funding it; and, oh, right, it’s set to be one of Disney’s big bets for summer 2006.

But it’s no joke. Between this news and the lingering unease in some quarters over the hugely successful but polarizing Passion, some in Hollywood are wondering whether Gibson is straying too far from the charming-crazy, mainstream-friendly persona that made him a star. ”Mel’s image has changed,” says one prominent producer. ”Would I pay him $20 million to do a straight-on action movie? I’d be nervous. Not because he’s persona non grata in Hollywood, but will he be accepted now?”

It’s safe to say that Lethal Weapon fans haven’t been clamoring for a Mayan epic starring a cast of unknowns. Then again, they weren’t clamoring for a Scottish epic with Gibson in blue face paint, and that didn’t hurt Braveheart. Two execs who have worked closely with Gibson contend that Apocalypto won’t hinder his status as an A-list star. ”Who wouldn’t want to see the first thing he’s done after The Passion?” asks one. And if Clint Eastwood has multitasked all these years, why not Gibson? ”I get offers for action parts every day” says his agent, Ed Limato, who notes that the actor came close to playing an undercover agent in a Warner Bros. thriller called Under and Alone. ”Right now, his head is into directing. But If Mel wanted to do Lethal Weapon 5 tomorrow, they’d be lined up.”