This majestic film isn't really a "swashbuckler." Heavy on historical detail, loaded with realistic performances and willing to pace itself and make the audience wait, this film is more Oscar contender than fantasy throwaway.
Set in the early 1800s during the Napoleonic wars and based on the historic novels of Patrick O'Brian, Master is the grandest of chase movies. The chase involves two ships: the British HMS Surprise, led by Captain Jack Aubrey (an awesome Russell Crowe), and the Acheron, a vessel in Napoleon's fleet. The Surprise's orders are to seek out the Acheron and sink her, or take her as a prize. These are tall orders considering that the Acheron is bigger, stronger and faster.
It is the Acheron that strikes the first blow in a stunning sequence where the Surprise is badly damaged. When Captain Aubrey peers into his looking glass and sees the Acheron's first cannon shots blast forth from dense fog, it's an incredible sight as the mist lights up with explosion. Director Peter Weir puts you in the Surprise as cannonballs rip through the ship, battering the crew and sending splinters into the camera.
Sustaining mass casualties and barely remaining afloat, Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey remains steadfast in his mission to defeat the Acheron. He orders his crew to perform repairs at sea, and tracks the ship from the Brazilian coast to the Galapagos Islands, where the final showdown takes place. In between battles, we see the Surprise's crew struggle with the ridiculousness of their mission, the loyalty to their captain and the notion that their ship may possess "cursed" crewmembers.
While Master is not stuffed with sea battles, the action remains tense during its quieter stretches, thanks to the work of Crowe and company. The ensemble cast is a strong one, including Paul Bettany as the ship's doctor and Aubrey's confidant. Having played one of Crowe's imaginary friends in A Beautiful Mind, it's interesting to see the pair working together again.
Weir cast some unknowns, the most notable being Max Pirkis as midshipman Lord Blakeney. This 13-year-old actor displays more maturity than most adults. A look at his biography shows that the kid has already trekked through the Andes and Himalayas with his family before going the acting route, giving him the appearance of someone who is already a little world-weary. The scene where his character must endure a grueling operation is remarkable work for a first-time actor.
It's good to see Crowe playing an action hero with depth, something he did very well in Gladiator. It takes a good actor to keep a potentially crazy character like Captain Aubrey on track and totally sympathetic, and Crowe does this with an assured ease. He and Bettany are right in the thick of things as far as the Oscars go.
Because the film has its share of quiet moments, some will find it easy to dismiss it as boring, and that's a shame. The film's only major flaws are some underdeveloped, disposable characters who are obviously supposed to have some sort of impact, but wind up being a tad forgettable. One in particular, a cartoonish, aged seaman babbling on about curses and doom, would seem more at home in Pirates of the Caribbean than this historical drama.
Minor quibbles aside, much of Weir's film qualifies as masterpiece and one of his best works, earning big praise for the guy who directed Fearless and The Truman Show. One of the year's best-looking and best-acted films, Master and Commander is unforgettable moviemaking on an epic scale.