Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Film review by: Witney Seibold
It’s unwise for me to admit this is a review, but I have something of a bias when it comes to action films: as a general rule, I don’t like them. Now, this is not a bias against action in general, mind you, but the large, clunky, overblown, top-heavy action spectaculars that spew out of the Hollywood glut machine every summer. Films like “The Rock” (one of the worst offenders), or “Bad Boys II.” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” directed by Peter Weir, starring Russell Crowe and based on the adventure novels by Patrick O’Brian, joyously and refreshingly has none of said glut. It’s an action film/historical epic that has wonderfully subdued action, and is surprisingly … not that epic.
Crowe is wonderful, as he often is, as Capt. Jack Aubrey, commander of The HMS Surprise. His best friend is the ship’s surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), one who is not under his command. When the Surprise is attacked, rather unexpectedly, by a French ship in the mists of the south Pacific, a desperate chase begins to command the waters off of Brazil. Aubrey must repair his ship, and, according to duty, seek out and take on the French phantom that attacked them.
But we don’t hurry there. The Surprise has its share of crises, and there are indeed scenes of cannonballs crashing through the thick wooden hulls of the ship, but Weir seems more interested in what happens in between the battles. This is not a story of a boat blowing up another boat; that’s easy-to-make and no fun to watch (Weir used real ships, for the most part, and not too much CGI). We’re given, instead, a rich, bracing, and intimate look into ship operations and character clashes. The ship is populated with dirty, shirtless drunken sailors, but they’re not cartoons along the lines of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” They’re drunken and shirtless because, well, sailors were. Teenagers were put in command, and we see the consequences of that. I couldn’t command a ship at age 13, I couldn’t command my math class.
This is a bold action-adventure epic, made by Hollywood with millions of dollars and starring an A-lister, that has the unmitigated gall to be quaint. It’s great.