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"MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD"
(2003) (Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Drama: An early 19th century navy captain sets out to outsmart and catch his wily and more heavily armed French opponent.
PLOT:
It's April 1805 and the only thing that stands between Napoleon and world domination is the British Navy. Accordingly, Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (RUSSELL CROWE) is ordered to take his warship, the H.M.S. Surprise, and intercept the French frigate Acheron. Unbeknownst to Aubrey, the French captain has come around on the Surprise. After she mounts a fearsome attack on Aubrey's vessel and crew, the Brit manages to get the Surprise into a fogbank and escape capture and/or destruction.

Aubrey's decision to stay the course and repair the ship while at sea rather than returning to port doesn't sit well with the crew, including the ship's surgeon, science officer and friend to the captain, Dr. Stephen Maturin (PAUL BETTANY).

While tracking the course of the Acheron, Aubrey pushes the crew - that includes coxswain Barrett Bonden (BILLY BOYD), Lt. Tom Pullings (JAMES D'ARCY), uncertain midshipman Hollom (LEE INGLEBY) who doesn't have the respect of those under him, sailing master Mr. Allen (ROBERT PUGH) and young members Peter Calamy (MAX BENITZ) and Lord Blakeney (MAX PIRKIS) - to their limits.

With additional violent encounters with the more heavily armored and armed Acheron as they sail around part of the world, Aubrey's determination to catch and defeat the enemy soon causes Maturin and others to question whether his motives are professional, personal or a combination of both.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In a way, filmmakers are somewhat like military officers. Both command large "armies" and must deal with logistical and tactical nightmares. They also employ all sorts of technologically advanced equipment and often blow up a lot of things.

Finally, they have a singular purpose in mind and that is simply to succeed. Of course, one involves defeating an enemy with the risk of life and limb.

While various things often hang in the balance regarding the success or failure of the other, however, filmmakers want to create a winning picture that will scare, move, enthrall, engage or otherwise entertain viewers.

To do so, they employ a variety of cinematic tactics and make choices they hope will lead to victory and the "surrendering" of viewer dollars at the box office and then on home video.

It's too early to say whether director Peter Weir will succeed at the latter (although methinks it's a good bet), but he certainly pulls out all of the stops in his period naval warfare flick, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

Based on novelist Patrick O'Brian's series of high seas period stories featuring Captain Jack Aubrey, the plot here revolves around a British Navy commander who attempts to defeat his French counterpart who mans a larger and more heavily armored and gunned frigate.

Not surprisingly, the film is filled with all sorts of naval maneuvers, tactics and high seas action. The interesting gambit that writer/director Weir ("The Truman Show," "Dead Poets Society") and co-writer John Collee ("Paper Mask") employ, though, is in not personifying the enemy until the very end of the film.

It's not the first and likely won't be the last time that's been done in a military battle picture ("Black Hawk Down" used it quite well to create its atmosphere of danger lurking around every corner and in every person), but it does create a problem.

Although we see plenty of the enemy ship and eventually her crew, the enemy captain is nowhere to be seen. Considering that much of the film's plot revolves around the brilliant tactical minds of the two captains, that somewhat lessens the overall impact of the conflict-based drama. Nevertheless, Weir and company still manage to suck us into the maneuvers and battle scenes.

Yet, one can't help but think the individual scenes and the overall film would have been more engaging, gripping and ultimately better had we seen and gotten to know the French captain. As an example, imagine if we'd never seen Khan in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." The resultant film might have still been rather engrossing and entertaining, but it wouldn't have been as good.

Another problem -- and a bigger one in my opinion -- is that the film is about as predictable as they come. If you don't see many movies and/or don't pay attention, then the film's developments, surprises and revelations might catch you off guard and make the film that much more fun.

On the other hand, the fact that Weir and company telegraph such material so much and so obviously will likely make some viewers -- including yours truly -- unfortunately keep repeating, "I saw that coming" and "Okay, here comes the development/surprise/revelation."

That said, neither of those problems make the film difficult to watch. In fact, despite knowing where most everything was headed (without ever having read any of O'Brian's works), the film is rather enthralling. Technical credits -- including the camerawork, editing and production design of the old frigates -- are topnotch and the pacing and basic conflict is suitably engaging.

Since the story completely revolves around the captain and his decisions, the casting of the part is of utmost importance. In that regard, Weir has hit the mother lode with choosing Russell Crowe for the part.

Arguably one of better actors working today, Crowe ("A Beautiful Mind," "Gladiator") seems perfect for the part and its physical and personality demands. Although he's not pushing his acting skills by any means, he's quite good and believable in the part and that goes a long way in making the film work.

His "Beautiful Mind" costar Paul Bettany ("Dogville," "A Knights Tale") gets second billing as the ship's surgeon and science officer and is also good in the part. The two obviously work well together and the chemistry - friendly and antagonistic -- feels right.

While Bettany must shoulder the majority of the film's telegraphed moments, others are quite good (including one featuring a bit of self-surgery via a mirror and a steady hand). The likes of James D'Arcy ("Nicolas Nickleby," "The Trench"), Max Pirkis (making his debut) and Lee Ingleby ("Nicolas Nickleby," "Ever After") appear in supporting roles and are generally okay, but this is essentially just a three character show (the captain, his doctor friend and the enemy ship).

Overall, I found the film rather good and certainly easy to watch. I just wonder what it would have been like had the enemy been personified and the intentional surprises not telegraphed to such a degree as to eliminate any doubt about what's going to occur from any moment to the next. Otherwise, this is a well-made, high seas adventure. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed October 27, 2003 / Posted November 14, 2003


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