This ambitious seafaring epic almost holds its rickety hull together thanks to Russell Crowe’s intense, broad-shouldered star power and Peter Weir’s minute attention to period detail. Though outgunned and outclassed, the British vessel HMS Surprise tracks the movements of the mighty Acheron, a French privateer ship in the service of Napoleon. Lucky Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and his mates are nearly destroyed in the opening battle, and despite the protestations of the film’s moral voice (Paul Bettany, playing the ship’s doctor) Lucky Jack vows revenge in the name of Queen and Country. Weir lays on all the details of a rough-hewn life at sea, all barnacles and knots and filth. But Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World doesn’t fare so well script-wise, with tacked-on conflicts aboard the ship (the sailors seem to invent drama for themselves to fill out the picture’s running time) and sea battles hyper-edited in the distracting chop-chop style of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. Master and Commander is never bold or romantic, too mired down in hoary seriousness. It’s unfortunately dull—the kiss of death for a movie that’s supposed to swash and buckle. Bettany frowns his way through his second banana role as Crowe’s Jiminy Cricket, and the rest of the cast is lost in the general mire (though child actor Max Pirkis makes a winning impression as midshipman Lord Blakeney, a pugnacious one-armed lad who imitates the masculine bravado of Crowe and the bookish reserve of Bettany). Crowe steals the show, though, doing the best he can to compress both lead performances from 1935’s The Mutiny on the Bounty—the long-winded haughtiness of Charles Laughton and the strapping manliness of Clark Gable—into one rough n’ tumble star turn. Redeeming himself for his grotesque showboating performance in A Beautiful Mind, Crowe finds able footing as a man’s man action hero.
Master and Commander gets the red carpet treatment on this two-disc special edition DVD. The film clocks in at 138 minutes, but all features have been stowed away on the second disc, thus keeping compression artifacts to a minimum. This is a gorgeous looking motion picture, and the transfer is remarkably clean, vibrant, and thanks to a handsome and appealing level of grain, very film-like. And if you want proof as to why the film's sound guys won Oscars, take a listen to the Dolby Digital DTS track included here. Every creak, every sound of nature (from the wind hitting the sails to the waves crashing against the film's mighty ships) is evoked with startling precision. It goes without saying that the surrounds are predictably mighty and frequency response is outstanding.
Besides the film, check out teaser trailers for The Day After Tomorrow, Man on Fire and a preview of I, Robot on the first disc. Pop in the second disc and treat yourself to The Hundred Days, an hour-long diary by Peter Weir that covers every single aspect of the film's production (from the script presented to Peter Weir to the final score conducted for the film), all inter-cut with cast and crew interviews, fascinating historical trivia and even more remarkable period artwork. "In the Wake of O'Brien" is a 13-minute featurette dedicated to the challenges of adapting the source material to the screen, and while a series of additional featurettes threaten to cover the same ground as The Hundred Days, none overstay their welcome: a "Cinematic Phasmids" section is dedicated to the arts and craft of the film, and is followed by two sound design featurettes and a handsome HBO First Look making-of piece. Rounding out the second disc are six deleted scenes, a series of multi-camera shootings, four stills galleries, and the film's teaser, theatrical and international trailer.
The narrative is competent but Master and Commander looks and sounds unlike any film you're likely to ever see.