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'Master' a satisfying high seas adventure

November 26, 2003
Russell Crowe and Billy Boyd star in director Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." The film is one of a number of recent attempts at revamping the epic adventure genre. —

It's nice to see Peter Weir put himself among recent filmmakers who are reviving epic flicks.

But "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" deserves to sit with the mediocre rather than the good.

This sea epic takes place during the Napoleonic Wars. Capt. Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) leads a heroic crew against a French gunship that takes them by surprise in the first 20 minutes of the film.

Aubrey becomes obsessed with finding and destroying the gunship - battling his friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who wants to stay on the Galapagos Islands and study the exotic animals. The relationship between the two men, as well as other crew members, serves as the secondary story to this war set on the high seas.

Weir is a good director. He, along with screenwriter John Collee, adapted the story from a Patrick O'Brian novel and seemed to take great care with the characters and their relationships.

The battle scenes were another triumph for Weir. The cannons roaring from ship to ship are one of screendom's most romantic notions of war. Even the boarding scene was careful to dance between the line of the rose-tinted pirate movies of Errol Flynn and the bloody violence of "Braveheart."

But Weir's failure in the film is to create a villainous threat worthy of making you grip the edge of your seat. Good epic dramas should do more than just create a sense of character. They should create tension building up to the battle sequences. Throughout the entire flick, there are only spotty moments when you might start biting your nails.

Much of this is because the enemy is never given a face. If the audience doesn't know anything about the villain, then there isn't any reason to despise him.

The filmmakers seem to be counting too much on Crowe's likable screen persona as the tough guy. Instead, the facile enemy only detracts from the danger. How is an audience suppose to feel strongly about a character it never sees until the very end for about 15 minutes? They can't. A hero is only as effective as the villain, and this one is about as effective as "Love Boat" bartender Isaac Washington.

Crowe and Bettany, who were teamed up previously in "A Beautiful Mind," were well-matched again. The two actors feed off each other and are both likable and good as the feuding friends. Other actors, who make up the crew, had only small but interesting parts.

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" has all the makings of a good epic war movie, just not the right mixture. The film is proof that even with top talent, movies can sink like an anchor.

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