As an epic, 'Master' scores a broadside hit

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is a kind of movie we don't often see anymore.

Today's historical pictures tend to rely on the cheap thrills of violence ("Gladiator") or on "good old days" nostalgia ("Seabiscuit") that caters to current fashions.

By contrast, "Master and Commander," based on historical novels by Patrick O'Brian, is a richly old-fashioned epic. Yes, it has scenes of violence and emotionalism. But it's more interested in building sharply focused characters and exploring their inner psychology as well as the external events that shape - and sometimes consume - their lives.

Played by Russell Crowe, the hero is Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, commander of the British warship Surprise during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century. He's been ordered to faraway waters off the Brazilian coast to prevent a powerful French ship from doing more damage than it already has. Despite the vigilance of Aubrey and his crew, the French manage to slip away not once but twice, leading the captain to vow it won't happen a third time. Exceeding his orders, he heads farther south than planned, engaging in a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

In addition to Aubrey and a shipload of colorful secondary characters, there's another key figure on board: Stephen Maturin, the ship surgeon. Maturin (Paul Bettany) is a man of action, ready to patch gruesome wounds in the heat of battle. Yet he's also a man of curiosity and intellect.

When the French lure the Surprise as far from home as the Galapagos Islands, Maturin is overcome by the urge to explore and understand this barely charted place. Aubrey promises to indulge his friend's interests as much as possible - which turns out to be less than Maturin hopes, given the wartime pressures.

The movie gets much of its absorbing power from the amicable duel between these two. The rest comes from director Peter Weir's eye-filling views of life at sea and the fearsomeness of combat between unevenly matched vessels commanded by smart, wily officers. This is Mr. Weir's best movie in ages, conveying the subtle sense of mystery that underlay "Gallipoli" and "The Year of Living Dangerously." I do have a nit to pick regarding Crowe, who relies more on his winning smile than his emotional versatility to bring Aubrey alive.

In all, though, this is a rip-roaring adventure combining edge-of-your-seat battle scenes with vivid historical details and more fascinating characters than most action movies dream of. Add heartfelt acting and Russell Boyd's atmospheric camera work, and you have the adventure movie of the year.

Rated PG-13; contains violence.

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