Monday, March 23, 2009


Watching the Russell Crowe Age of Sail epic "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is enough to make anybody sea-sick. In other words, you'll get sick of seeing this formulaic flotsam of cliches long before its interminable 138 minutes has washed over you. Unlike those popular Errol Flynn swashbucklers from the 1930s, Gregory Peck's "Captain Horatio Hornblower" (1951), or the Johnny Depp "Pirates of the Caribbean" epics, "Master and Commander" takes itself far too seriously and features a predominantly male cast, with no damsels-in-distress awaiting rescue from depicable villains. The fleeting moments when women do appear on screen seem designed to reassure any doubting spectators about the heterosexual orientation of the entire HMS Surprise crew. Worse, "Master and Commander" lacks a hardcore villain in either character or physical stature. This lack of villainy undercuts director Peter Weir's film and its overall dramatic impact. The earliest glimpse that we catch of the villainous French captain is after Russell Crowe and crew have stormed their adversary's ship. Oops, did you ever doubt Russell wouldn't feast on frog legs at fadeout?

Nevetheless, this literate, authentic looking, tactical game of cat and mouse on the high seas set in the year 1805 between an under-gunned English vessel and a well-armed Napoleonic man-of-war excels in visual and narrative storytelling. Athough writer & director Peter Weir of "Gallipoli," "The Mosquito Coast," and "The Truman Show" fame and co-scenarist former physician John Collee have written well-thought out characters with clearly delineated motivations, they have failed miserably at making any of them charismatic, much less memorable. You won't find yourself cheering on Russell Crowe here as you might have in "Gladiator" because his character behaves like a good-two shoes.

Some will applaud the documentary verisimilitude that Aussie helmer Peter Weir brings to "Master and Commander" without exposing either the unsavory homoerotic or sadomasochistic undertones persasive in the British Navy during the 19th century. Weir and his collaborators must have poured considerable time and research into "Master and Commander" because each scene appears thoroughly credible, especially with regard to loading and firing cannon. Weir lensed this turbulent ocean-going voyage in the huge aquatic tank in Baja, Mexico, built for "Titanic." Meawnhile, others less enamored of historical detail may keep glancing at theircell phone clocks, chafing in eager anticipation for the inevitable comeuppance that ultimately takes too long to materialize. The battle scenes are the best that "Master and Commander" has to offer. Indeed, the ships appear genuine enough, whether either life-sized or miniature, and teh atmospheric cinematography always provides viewers with the most intereseting perspectives. Sadly, the drawn-out scenes on the Galapogos Islands amount to nothing more than malingering. Bloody without being sanguinary, Weir stages gritty action scenes, such as a broading party assault during a ship-to-ship battle, well enough. No, the violence in "Master and Commander" won't make you flinch like the graphic bloodshed in Mel Gibson's superior but bloody colonial epic "The Patriot." In a model of restraint, Weir has characters talk about the gore that occurs off screen and only shows its consequences on-screen. Okay, one guy does take a bullet between the eyes, but he doesn't stand around and talk about it. Unfortunately, if you dread closed confines, you'll find yourself sweating like a claustrophobic. Eighty per cent of "Master and Commander" transpires within the cramped confines fo the HMS Surprise. Meaning, time drags its sea legs between the first encounter with the French and the final showdown. No, "Master and Commander" dispenses with the rip-snorting escapades of the gender-bending Geena Davis swashbuckler "Cutthroat Island" and avoids the harsh rivalry between the skipper and subordinates of the 1962 Alec Guinness effort "Damn the Defiant." Suffice to say, were any 19th century British marines alive, they'd consider life aboard HMS Surprise more akin to a pleasure cruise than a British warship, but then that's Hollywood for you.

Four Hollywood studios banded together (Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Miramax Films, and Samuel Goldwyn Films) to produce this colossal $150 million dollaryarn. "Writer & director Peter Weir and John Collee combined two of the late Patrick O'Brien's historical novels, "Master and Commander" and "The Far Side of the World," to serve as the basis for their above-average but predictable screenplay. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, "Master and Commander" opens with the Acheron, a mysterious but appropriately named French battleship, sneaking up on HMS Surprise and giving Captain 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and his crew the surprise of their lives. Not only does the rest of teh plot chart how Aubrey cleverly evades the French, but also his egoistical refusal to tuck his rudder between his sails. Half-way through the story, this phantom French ship reappears without warning and sends our heroes scurrying again, though they do cobble together a skillful ruse to mislead the enemy.

Once again, the British are cast as underdogs! Eventually, 'Lucky' Jack turns to his right-hand man, the ship's surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, Crowe's co-star in "A Beautiful Mind") who shows his life-long friend how the study of biology can bail him out of tough straits. The biggest problem with this sumptuously produced reinactment of early 19th century naval warfare is its PG-13 realism about life on a British warship. Weir and his scenarist appear more committed to lecturing audiences about good citizenship than depicting events with nominal realism. Torn between the needs of his crew versus the demands of command, Crowe's Captain Aubrey emerges as hopelessly sentimental. Yes, one scene features a flogging, but Weir and company bring PG-13 restraint to the fore with a little blood in sight as possible when a crew member takes his lashes. Perhaps the worst misstep is a subplot about a wounded lad who lost his right arm to a French cannon ball. During the climactic fight, this fearless midshipman plunges into the battered Acheron with a single-shot musket pistol. Come on, give me a break, one-armed kids to the rescue! The other misstep occurs with the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin. They behave like clones of Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy from the "Star Trek" movies. Furthermore, their solitary interludes when they indulge their musical urges with violin and cello respectively seem wholly out-of-place in a briny, sea-faring saga.

Altogether, despite its top-drawer production values, gorgeous cinematography, and inspired staging of its sea battles, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" fall far short of those entertaining swashbucklers of yesteryear. Furthermore, its obsession with gratuitous good citizenship propaganda, its abysmal lack of a villain, and a shortage of charismatic heroes nearly sinks this ambitious yarn.