It’s hard to say which would be a more damaging outcome for the strange triumvirate of film companies (Fox, Miramax, Universal) that produced the $90 million “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”: if it bombs, then we might not be seeing another costly historical epic for some time, but if it succeeds, then somebody’s going to try and film the rest of the series of books it’s based on (some 20 titles at last count). And although what we’ve got on screen this first time is mostly good fun; 19 more of them would be a bit of a stretch.
If you didn’t know, “Master and Commander” is set on a British warship, the HMS Surprise, during the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century. The ship’s captain is Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), nicknamed “Lucky Jack” by the crew, a ragged but pretty fanatically loyal bunch. Aubrey’s luck seems barely in attendance in the film’s opening salvo, when the Surprise gets ambushed in fog off the coast of Brazil by the Acheron, a French privateer they were sent to intercept. The Acheron’s guns make a hash of the Surprise’s decks and sails before Aubrey slips off into the fog.
The rest of the film is basically a chase, as Aubrey drags his damaged ship off after the Acheron – a faster, stronger ship with more crew and twice as many cannon – in an attempt to keep them from reaching the rich and unprotected shipping lanes of the Pacific. While “Master and Commander” is for the most part commendable in what it doesn’t feel the need to do – give Aubrey a love interest, present the character’s histories in flashback, demonize their enemies – the script fails occasionally in that it dredges up some clichéd story elements to keep the audience from drifting in between skirmishes. There’s the officer who can’t keep the crew’s respect, an attempt at mutiny, and even a moment when Aubrey has to cut loose a drowning sailor in order to save the ship. And it doesn’t help that in all the hurly-burly of fluttering sails and thrashing waves, only a very small number of the ship’s crew ever register as individuals.

The stars, of course, register. Crowe plays Aubrey as a slightly sunnier version of Maximus from “Gladiator”, the success of which this film is very much trying to capitalize on with its talk of honor and duty, and its gruesomely realistic approach to pre-modern combat. While the role is not exactly a huge departure for Crowe, his genial approach to playing Aubrey, gentle and prodding one moment, and iron-willed leader of men the next, gives this more-than-occasionally-wandering film just about as good an anchor as it needs. Balancing out Aubrey’s happy martial behavior – this is a man who enjoys what he does to an almost frightening degree – is his best friend, the ship’s doctor (and naturalist), Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who has the same, reasoned, philosopher’s demeanor whether he’s studying a strange species of beetle or amputating the arm of a pre-adolescent sailor. It’s a scrappy relationship, the men fight like brothers and only seem generally calm when playing music together, Maturin sawing away on the cello and Aubrey plucking at a violin.

All criticism of its clichéd moments and wandering attention aside, “Master and Commander” is impressively handled by director Peter Weir (“The Truman Show”), a director who, outside of the World War I film “Gallipoli,” has never handled much in the way of an action film. Weir’s camera can’t get enough of soaring over the ocean and diving through the Surprise’s cramped quarters, but there are just as many moments of lyrical quiet where all we may see are sailors clambering through the rigging in pre-dawn blue. Weir keeps the viewers bottled up just long enough on the boat, that when they do make land at the Galapagos islands – conveniently allowing Maturin to go aground specimen-hunting. The battles, when they occur, are crashing, smashing, symphonies of destruction, and rendered all the more intense by the immaculate sound design which not only gets one uncomfortably close to those cannonballs blasting through solid oak and sailor’s bodies, but makes one very aware of just how delicate these vessels are.

It all might not amount to much in the end; again, this is in many ways an exceptionally heartfelt and pungent chase film. But in a season when studios can barely even manage to muster a few decent stock action flicks or thought-provoking Oscar-bait dramas, we may have to take what we can get. Strictly for fans of the high seas, history and stirring calls to arms (yes, Aubrey gets a rouse-the-men-before-battle-speech, and it’s an arm-hair-raising doozy) – the best boy’s adventure of the year.

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