November 19, 2003  
Volume 97, Issue 45  

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Master of high sea adventure

By Brent Carpenter
Gazette Staff

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Directed by: Peter Weir
Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Max Pirkis, Billy Boyd, James D'Arcy

Gazette file photo
LUCKY JACK KNOWS HOW TO GET THINGS DONE. Russell Crowe takes command of the stormy seas in Master and Commander.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - both take place at sea, carry $150 million price tags and have protagonists named Captain Jack (Aubrey and Sparrow, respectively). In addition, they both have long-ass titles that seem to reflect some sort of dispute between studio executives that must have eventually ended in compromise.

Aside from these glaring similarities, they're about as opposite as two high-sea adventure movies can be. FOX's marketing department may come to regret promoting Master and Commander as a high-seas Gladiator, and, if so, they'd deserve it. Once again, it demonstrates that studios care more about opening weekend numbers than keeping their marketing campaign true to the feel of the product. The result will be a lot of disappointed action fans spreading bad word of mouth on what is actually a great film.

The action in Master and Commander - raw, effective and well-shot - occurs only when it's absolutely necessary. Based on Patrick O'Brian's series of novels, the film is interested in developing interpersonal relations between characters and then using the surrounding environment to test those relationships.

Director Weir, capable of working on both a small (Dead Poets Society, Witness) as well as large scale (Gallipoli, The Truman Show), has always seemed to be interested in friendship and human interaction, as well as the effect we have on others' lives. Here, he presents the story of famous British navy captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and his close friend and most straightforward critic, ship surgeon Stephen Maurin (Bettany). Both make decisions that dictate the course (both literally and figuratively) of the mens' lives, and, right or wrong, each man has different means of dealing with those decisions.

When he loses a patient, Maurin has to tell himself it was the enemy who killed the man; when Aubrey decides to cut a broken mast and drown one of his more popular crew members - for the safety of the rest of the ship and crew - he tells himself that it's a captain's duty to choose "the lesser of two evils." Both men appear wise to the fact they may be deluding themselves; still, they have no choice but to endure.

Crowe is perfectly suited for the role of the surly, determined and stubborn Lucky Jack - a fierce navigator and military strategist who relaxes by playing the violin with his friend, Dr. Maturin. As captain of the HMS Surprise, Aubrey's orders are to intercept the powerful French warship Acheron and either sink it, burn it or take it as a prize.

Maturin may be a biology-obsessed surgeon, but he still ain't no sissy. Weak and needing immediate surgery to remove a bullet (and a festering piece of fabric) from his stomach, he asks nothing more from his mates than to have someone hold up a mirror and give him a scalpel.

Finally, as we all know, a $150 million budget buys a hell of a lot more than a touching tale of friendship.

The special effects are flawless, adding spectacle to the already striking realism of the film. Whether it's a long-shot of the Surprise dwarfed by the ocean or a tight shot of the Acheron and Surprise side-by-side exchanging devastating cannon fire, the entire budget is onscreen. The hand-to-hand fighting captures the confusion and unsettling intimacy of battle, and Weir deserves credit for never straying into parody in his depiction of the French enemy.

Assuming you're not just a spectacle fiend with a small attention span, you're very likely to appreciate Master and Commander. It doesn't pander to the masses with over-produced and unrealistic action scenes, and never once does it insult your intelligence.



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