Shakedown Cruise

On his maiden voyage, veteran director Peter Weir masters the sea epic.

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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Russell Crowe plays a manly man's man with a - penchant for cheap humor.
Russell Crowe plays a manly man's man with a penchant for cheap humor.
Russell Crowe, that sturdy studio staple, performs at his peak in the seafaring adventure Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Director Peter Weir takes the helm on this adaptation (co-written with John Collee) of a couple of the 20 intrepid historical novels by the late Patrick O'Brian, and it's easy to call the result one of this year's best films -- a classic, even, like a C.S. Forester Hornblower story on steroids. With incredible attention to detail and bold disregard for marketplace hipness, Weir has unleashed a rollicking adventure film dedicated not to escapism, but to restoring some sense of humanity to its digitally delirious audience. Here, amid the salt spray, tropical sweat, and puddles of blood, relatable characters skirt the shoals of melodrama to dive headlong into unpredictable squalls and maddening torpor. This movie is alive. It's a shame that O'Brian didn't live to see it, as one imagines he'd be most proud.

Since some of our real leaders these days are malevolent shits, it's nice that the cinema offers occasional doses of charisma. Enter Crowe, as British Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey. Countering Johnny Depp's swishbuckling flamboyance as this year's other Captain Jack, Aubrey is a manly man's man, with a penchant for cheap humor. ("To wives and sweethearts," he proclaims during a toast with his officers, "may they never meet.") Nonetheless, just about the only woman in the film is a tropical blossom who tempts the good captain for all of two seconds before he returns to stalwart mode. It's just not that kind of relationship movie -- though Crowe could have pushed his performance into greatness by betraying at least a hint of vulnerability.

Once again sharing silver-screen intimacy is Crowe's imaginary college roommate from A Beautiful Mind, Paul Bettany. To put it simply, Bettany is terrific. As passionate naturalist and ship's doctor Stephen Maturin, Bettany provides the thoughtful, studious contrast that allows Crowe's constant swaggering to pass as leadership, rather than wannabe rock-star wankery. The characters' convincingly strained friendship extends well beyond their spotless white blouses and unfolds engagingly throughout this beautifully lensed movie's measured plot.

It's 1805, somewhere off the coast of Brazil, and the HMS Surprise is surprised by a sudden attack from a larger and more heavily armed French privateer, the Acheron. Napoleon's floating frog brigade remains a faceless threat for most of the movie, as Aubrey decides -- in the oft-spoken name of Lord Nelson -- to repair the Surprise, give chase, and capture the superior vessel. It's a big risk. His surviving crew, including the officers (James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, and Chris Larkin), a dedicated boatswain (Ian Mercer), a hearty coxswain (The Lord of the Rings' Billy Boyd, appearing briefly), and plenty of other swain-types remain dedicated. As a dewy midshipman, young Max Pirkis proves both that youth means business and that kids can act! Yet despite the support, the fairly obsessive captain's course proves increasingly treacherous, involving storms, injuries, and really intense ennui aboard the "wooden prison" as it makes its perilous way around Cape Horn toward the mysterious Galapagos islands.

Master and Commander is a stately, old-fashioned tale, deftly delivered. The surprisingly appropriate Mexican locations, effects from Industrial Light and Magic, and "bigatures" from New Zealand's WETA studios unobtrusively boost this properly wide-screen enterprise. Alas, watching Bettany and Crowe ham it up with cello and fiddle proves a bit absurd, but the soundtrack is gorgeous. No motion picture could do justice to Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," but Weir sure does his darnedest.

This really is Weir's finest film since The Mosquito Coast. Just as he coaxed out Harrison Ford's finest work in 1986, Weir works wonders with Crowe -- and his own oeuvre -- today. It's worth viewing both projects to witness the continued evolution of a truly great filmmaker.

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