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master and commander poster
Click for full sized poster

Master and Commander:
The Far Side of the World

Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany
Screenplay by Peter Weir & John Collee
Based on the novels by Patrick O'Brian
Directed by Peter Weir
click for official website

IN SHORT: Loved the cannon fire. Didn't care much about the characters. [Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, related images, and brief language. 138 minutes]

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World adapts two novels (separated by the convenient colon) of the twenty which comprise Patrick O'Brian's series about the commander and crew of the HMS Surprise, a 19th century English warship. These stories, which have come to be termed the Aubrey/Maturin books, have as their focus the careers and professional relationship of the ship's captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and doctor Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who literally and figuratively plays cello to the captain's violin. Don't make assumptions, literally means literally.

We pause to remind fickle letter writers out there that it is the policy of this site not to compare a film with its Source Material. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World doesn't play as if it has had so much source material jammed in that a viewer can feel the holes left by material that is omitted. Its battle scenes severely taxed the surround sound speakers in our theater and its location shots are about as exotic as you can get. On the other side of the equation, its story's sequences play out back to back, just like the chapters in a book, and lacked the overall focus to have us raving on the way out about the drama on the high seas we had just seen. The battle sequences are quite another story..

Traditionally, stories set on the big sailing ships of the nineteenth century focus either on the Captain of the ship or on a crewman making his way among the established working order of an established crew. Most of the time that means a kid among adults, but not always. As this film begins, despite Russell Crowe's name above the title, our attention is focused on a kidlet mate called Lord Blakeney (Max Pirkis) in a bit that exists solely to explain his appearance for the rest of the film. Given the complexities of royal bloodlines and such, we have no idea if Blakeney is an actual Lord since half the time he's called "mister," which is also the proper form of address for a non-commissioned officer. That's the kind of detail we wouldn't notice if a film like this had blown our socks off. But we did.

After Blakeney's turn, Master and Commander move on to other bits focusing on the relationships between Crowe's captain and the other crew members; some, like boatswain Hollar (Ian Mercer) are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and some, like midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby) make an unfortunate choice for a swimming buddy. Each of these stories are laid end to end and all feel like chapters in a book. That kind of construction takes the film out of the realm of star turn but doesn't help it build a strong story focus, perhaps assuming that the viewing audience knows all about the Napoleonic Wars between England and France. That may be true for our friends across the Pond but not to us and that assumption hurts Master and Commander for us. We were wowed by the battle sequences even as the script leaves most of the character development off screen. Outside of Blakeney, without press notes and our scribbling we couldn't put a name to any of the other seamen excepting a rotund whaler named Hogg (Mark Lewis Jones). Then again, we really did plant to see as much destruction as possible. That, we got.

The Surprise hunts the French privateer Acheron, a ship that proves to be faster and tougher, in both design and firepower, than it appears. The ship, of course, is American made (yea, us!). His Majesty, King George III, has given orders to destroy such ships before they reach the freedom of Pacific waters which the Surprise does, above and beyond the scope of those orders. That means, of course, it gets its butt whipped but good early on in the film and still manages --- wait, hold it, can't reveal the third act . . . whose finale is not as obvious as that little diversion in review writing would imply. We will say that it winds up in and around the Galapagos Islands thirty years before Charles Darwin got there, essentially depositing the "naturalist" and research oriented doctor in hog heaven. Just before those darned French show up and get in the way of legitimate turtle research.

Aside from those turtles you get a great sea battle and equally great hand to hand, sword to sword action. The rest of the supporting material wasn't enough for us and the whole package bored our femme friend to pieces (the presence of Mr. C notwithstanding). That kind of he likes it she didn't puts our rating at an easy dateflick level, though we wet a bit higher than normal 'cuz we've got testosterone<g>

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, he would have paid . . .

$5.50

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a manly movie about manly men on the high seas. The very beautiful woman seen briefly in the television commercial has no more time on the big screen than she does on the small. Darn. Just so you should know.

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