U.S. Release Date: November 14, 2003
Distributor: Fox
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: John Collee
Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany
Running Time: 2 hours and 18 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (intense battle sequences, related images and brief language)

A Listless Adventure
by C.A. Wolski

There is no arguing that director Peter Weir's latest effort Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a handsomely produced and technically skilled effort, evoking the classic sea adventures of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks. But for all its compelling realism of life at sea during the Napoleonic Wars, the movie fails because it is emotionally flat.

Unlike Weir's classic, emotionally gut-wrenching anti-war picture Gallipoli, we don't really feel for Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) or any of his crew, including his friend and defacto conscience, the proto-Darwin Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). We get derring-do, and exciting fights between warships and against nature, but we don't get what would have made this flick an instant classic—a glimpse into the psyche of a captain that would exceed orders and subject his men to great hardship for a prize that, by all rights, is out of their reach.

Based on the Aubrey novels by Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander is, essentially, a chase story with the brave captain's vessel the British warship HMS Surprise given the task to hunt down and either destroy or capture the French privateer Archeon, which is trolling the waters around Brazil, causing all sorts of hardships for British merchantmen in the area. Though Aubrey is an able captain who has risen through the ranks to become a respected commander, the Archeon outclasses his beloved vessel on every account—it's faster, bigger, better armed and has more men. After two engagements with the French warship, the battered Surprise is pressed forward through storms and doldrums to find the "phantom" vessel.

The quest becomes an obsession for Aubrey, but we learn little about his motivations other than the fact that he is a good sailor who follows orders and has an abiding hatred of the French and the despotic Napoleon. After the second encounter with the Archeon, the movie enters the land of Joseph Conrad with men whose whole universe is confined to an island of a ship and who are at the mercy of man, nature, and their own psyches. Unfortunately, the script, by Weir and John Collee, errs on the side of naturalism and docudrama, excising any of the psychological nuances that could have made the movie both a rousing adventure and a sharp study of the line between effective leadership and blind obsession.

It's obvious why Aubrey is an appealing leader. He is confidant, willing to take risks and is a calculating and savvy sailor and tactician. But it is in the character of Aubrey that Master and Commander's flaws are revealed. The movie needs a dose of romanticism to really work. We see Aubrey writing to his wife, we know he loves his ship—on which he grew to manhood—and we know he loves his country. But the philosophical underpinnings of his passions and values are never explored, nor are the consequences per se. They are hinted at, but in a naturalistic way, almost as if Weir was intent to treat the picture as a documentarian instead of a storyteller.

That said, the plot of Master and Commander works, though, by the end it gets a bit predictable and the key to Aubrey's victory is obvious about three reels before he stumbles upon it. The final battle is thrilling and brilliantly executed by Weir.

The acting is solid and very much of the stiff upper lip school. Crowe is particularly strong, and does a good job of portraying a three-dimensional character who is an enigma.

For all its flaws, audience members who are looking for an adult, intelligently executed action movie would do well to navigate to a theatre showing Master and Commander.

One word of warning, though handled in a discreet manner, there are several scenes of violence against children that could be off-putting to more sensitive viewers and are not appropriate for those under high school age. The battle scenes are intense and there is a good deal of gore and blood.

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