Cruise Control

Peter Weir masters the sea epic--and Russell Crowe

Russell Crowe to his agent: "More Oscar-bait. Now." Agent, considering his cut of Crowe's $20 million payday: "Yes, sir."

A possible scenario, anyway. Thus, Crowe is back in another iconic, self-serious performance, and his beefy mug will stare down upon us from this season's heroic movie posters until Tom Cruise socks him in the knee and Viggo Mortensen gives him a royal noogie. In the meantime, the sturdy studio staple performs at his peak in the seafaring adventure Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Director Peter Weir takes the helm on this adaptation (co-written with John Collee) of a couple of the 20 intrepid historical novels of the late Patrick O'Brian, and it's really easy to call the result one of this year's best films--a classic, even, like a C.S. Forester Hornblower story on steroids. With incredible attention to detail and a bold disregard for marketplace hipness, Weir has unleashed a rollicking adventure film dedicated not to escapism but to restoring some sense of humanity to its digitally delirious audience. Here amid the salt spray, tropical sweat and puddles of blood, relatable characters skirt the shoals of melodrama to drive headlong into unpredictable squalls and maddening torpor. This movie is alive. It's a shame that O'Brian didn't live to see it, as one imagines he'd be most proud.

Russell Crowe is masterful--so's his hair--in Master and Commander.
Russell Crowe is masterful--so's his hair--in Master and Commander.

Since some of our real leaders these days are malevolent shits, the cinema offers occasional doses of charisma. Enter Crowe as British Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey. Countering Johnny Depp's swishbuckling flamboyance as this year's other Captain Jack, Aubrey is a manly man's man, with a penchant for cheap humor. ("To wives and sweethearts," he proclaims during a toast with his officers, "may they never meet.") Nonetheless, just about the only woman in the film is a tropical blossom who tempts the good captain for all of two seconds before he returns to stalwart mode. It's just not that kind of relationship movie--though Crowe could have pushed his performance into greatness by betraying at least a hint of vulnerability.

Once again sharing silver-screen intimacy is Crowe's imaginary college roommate from A Beautiful Mind, Paul Bettany. To put it simply, Bettany is terrific, fully deserving name-above-the-title billing with Crowe. As passionate naturalist and ship doctor Stephen Maturin, Bettany provides the thoughtful, studious contrast that allows Crowe's constant swaggering to pass as leadership, rather than wannabe rock-star wankery. For Chrissakes, it took two hairstylists to make Crowe's impossibly glamorous mane look like a conditioner commercial after months on the high seas. Anyway, cosmetic implausibilities aside, the characters' convincingly strained friendship extends well beyond their spotless white blouses and unfolds engagingly throughout this beautifully lensed movie's measured plot.

It's 1805 somewhere off the coast of Brazil, and the HMS Surprise is surprised by a sudden attack from the larger and more heavily armed French privateer, the Acheron. Napoleon's floating frog brigade remains a faceless threat for most of the movie, as Aubrey decides to repair the Surprise, in the oft-spoken name of Lord Nelson, to give chase and capture the superior vessel. It's a big risk. His surviving crew, including the officers (James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall and Chris Larkin), a dedicated boatswain (Ian Mercer), a hearty coxswain (The Lord of the Rings' Billy Boyd, appearing briefly) and plenty of other swain-types, remains dedicated. As a dewy midshipman, young Max Pirkis proves both that youths mean business, and that kids can act. Yet despite the support, the fairly obsessive captain's course proves increasingly treacherous, involving storms, injuries and really intense ennui aboard the "wooden prison" as it makes its perilous way around Cape Horn (or "Hoorn," for you Dutch historians) toward the mystical Galapagos islands.

Master and Commander is a stately, old-fashioned tale, deftly delivered. The surprisingly apt Mexican locations, effects from Industrial Light and Magic and "bigatures" from New Zealand's WETA studios unobtrusively boost this properly widescreen enterprise. Even the supporting players were culled from Poland so that Weir could avoid "Kodak-ready smiles or expressions of world-weary cynicism." The elements harmonize beautifully. Alas, watching Bettany and Crowe ham it up with cello and fiddle proves a bit absurd, but the soundtrack is gorgeous. No motion picture could do justice to Vaughn Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," but Weir sure does his darndest.

This is Weir's finest film since the brilliant The Mosquito Coast, with which it shares many themes. Wounded nationalism resurfaces, the concept of prey becoming predator, the leader who may be going mad. Just as he coaxed out Harrison Ford's finest work in 1986, Weir works wonders with Crowe--and his own oeuvre--today. It's worth viewing both projects to witness the continued evolution of a truly great filmmaker.

 
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