Combustible Celluloid
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With: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Chris Larkin, Max Pirkis, Jack Randall, Max Benitz, Lee Ingleby, Richard Pates, Robert Pugh, Richard McCabe, Ian Mercer, Tony Dolan, David Threlfall, Billy Boyd, Bryan Dick, Joseph Morgan, George Innes, William Mannering, Patrick Gallagher, Alex Palmer, Mark Lewis Jones, John DeSantis, Ousmane Thiam, Thierry Segall, Aidan Black
Written by: Peter Weir, John Collee, based on the novels by Patrick O'Brian
Directed by: Peter Weir
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language
Running Time: 138
Date: 11/14/2003

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Grand 'Master'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Russell Crowe's gigantic new epic took three major league studios to finance (Titanic only took two), and it certainly has the look of one of those overly inflated and unbelievably boring white elephants specifically designed to win Oscars.

Surprisingly, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World plays more like an old time adventure of the type that Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh might have directed. It's sleek, sprightly and buoyantly exciting; a welcome break from the dismal-looking holiday movie season.

Moreover, Crowe gives his warmest and most intelligent performance in years, picking up the slack from his intolerable, insufferable performances in Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind and reminding us why he's a movie star.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Crowe plays the likable Captain Jack Aubrey -- also known as "Lucky Jack" -- whose greatest asset is that he once sailed with Lord Nelson and can recount both times the legendary seaman spoke to him (one time was "pass the salt"). And so right off the bat Aubrey has a human quality; he's not infallible and he's not a living legend. He spends the film trying to live up to one.

Basically the entire picture follows Aubrey and his crew as they try to track down and capture or destroy an enemy ship -- a newer French vessel with a better design and more speed. They encounter the ship three times over the course of the film, and we do not meet or even see any of its occupants until the very end. Nor do we ever meet anyone else but Aubrey and the 197-man crew of the HMS Sophie, which includes a wide range of kids and old-timers.

In this manner, writer/director Peter Weir and co-screenwriter John Collee keep the action simple and focused upon the relationships between the men on the ship. Best of all is Aubrey's relationship with his best friend and the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Like in a Hawks film, the two men often oppose one another but still retain the utmost respect and admiration for each other.

At one point, Maturin realizes that the ship will be passing near the Galapagos Islands, which offer a chance to study all kinds of rare animal specimens. But even as they gain sight of the magical islands and a few of the creatures contained therein, the battle cry sounds and they must move away again.

The movie plays quite a bit with this eternal conflict between war and science -- brawn and brains -- but unlike real life, it manages to draw a tidy and happy compromise between the two.

Naval historians will no doubt thrill to the film's seemingly accurate period detail (gleaned from novels by Patrick O'Brian). In this, director Weir was the right man for the job. Weir's greatest strength has always been in establishing clear and well-defined spaces for his characters to dwell in. Consider the Amish village in Witness and the small town facade in The Truman Show and Master and Commander fits right in.

In addition, the studios could do worse than putting their money down on a three-time Academy Award nominee who hasn't yet won. Unfortunately for them -- and fortunately for us -- the film he's turned in is far too much fun and not nearly boring or important enough to win anything.

As for its DVD release, though it definitely loses some of its scope on the small screen, this film's greatest strength was its Howard Hawks-like storytelling, and so none of the overall impact is lost. The two-disc special edition comes with a 70-minute making-of documentary in lieu of a Peter Weir commentary track. It also includes smaller featurettes on the special effects and on adapting the novels, plus an "interactive" cannon demonstration and multi-angle battle scene studies. Plus, trailers, art galleries, drawings and blueprints and deleted scenes. In the package, we get a map and a full-color booklet. For bargain hunters, the film is also available in a single-disc edition.

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