Russel Crowe's starpower is put to the test in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, as he is the only major actor among a cast of almost all men. Much like his character, the odds are mightily against him, as sea-fairing, Napoleon-era films rarely do well. Luckily, there are always exceptions.
Crowe stars as British Captain Jack Aubrey who finds himself on the raw end of a deal when his ship is attacked out of nowhere by a much larger French ship that has the advantage in every aspect. Despite his ship being nearly crippled, he leads his crew halfway around the world to enact revenge and take the ship for the honor of the Royal Navy.
Crowe, who is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic actors that has emerged in the last few years, shows yet again that he has the goods to lead any movie. He won an Oscar for Gladiator, but turned in two even better performances in The Insider and A Beautiful Mind, both of which he was only nominated for. His portrayal of Captain Jack Aubrey (note: this is the second Captain Jack of the year, after Pirates of the Caribbean) might not be Oscar material but is still extraordinary; he plays a very compassionate man who is turn between duty and friendship, exemplified in his relationship with Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Crowe is very good at expressing emotions without words, and director Peter Weir (The Truman Show) does a good job of capturing such emotion.
Of course, the real question is not whether Crowe can act but whether the overly-long-titled Master and Commander is worth watching. The answer is a definitive "yes," though it is necessary that the audience knows what they are in store for. The previews hyped Master and Commander as a wet-and-wild, action-packed story of adventure and courage; in reality it is more a suspenseful drama with three or four really good action scenes. The middle hour or so has no battles in it whatsoever; instead, the crew battles against heat, lack of water, and each other. Director Weir manages this pretty well by not being too heavy-handed; there is a lot of mild humor and enjoyable characters. Performances from the cast are all pretty good, but there are so many characters that few are really developed all too much. Nonetheless, Master and Commander is still pretty entertaining even when guns are not blazing.
That being said, the action scenes are pretty exciting. Weir captures an amazing level of suspense in the first attack sequence, which is somewhat depicted in the previews (the enemy ship fires from within a cloud of fog). The second attack is also fairly suspenseful and daunting. Of course, the final attack is an all out tour de force, even though it is a bit short for the conclusion of a movie. Still, Weir has filmed some excellent action scenes here.
The only disappointing part about the action scenes are that it is hard to tell who is who. At many times, especially in the conclusion, Weir shows people getting shot or sliced, and the ships getting hit by cannons; since both the good guys and bad guys look the same, it is hard to know when to cheer. Of course, if you just want to see a lot of gunplay, it doesn't really matter, does it?
Master and Commander is an entertaining and exciting movie that has good acting; all around it is a very good film and should end up in a lot of Top Ten lists. A few scenes could have been cut out in the center of the movie to pace things a little better, but other than that Peter Weir has a very good movie on his hands.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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