Estimates put the budget of Peter Weir's Master And Commander, a mega-production backed by three major studios, somewhere in the neighborhood of $130 million. That's a staggering amount of money by any measure, but a solid percentage of it appears to have made it to the screen. Much like last year's Gangs Of New York, Master And Commander impresses first and foremost with its extraordinary physicality: With imposing scale, it captures the weight and proportion of early-19th-century warships in a way that digital effects could never express. From the start, Weir and his superb technicians never let the audience forget that these vessels are massive pieces of wood, creaky and lumbering, needing every one of the "197 souls" on board to keep them afloat. A stately answer to today's more fleet-footed action-adventure films, Master And Commander simply revolves around a cat-and-mouse game between one large ship and another with twice its guns and manpower. But the story's simplicity helps elevate the battle to a colossal stage. Patched together from three of Patrick O'Brian's serial novels, Master And Commander takes place in 1805, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, which pit the British Navy's H.M.S. Surprise against a formidable French opponent. After a "phantom" enemy attacks in heavy fog off the Brazilian coast, leaving the Surprise shredded by cannon fire, esteemed fighting captain Russell Crowe faces a difficult decision: head for port, or pursue a superior ship despite the damage. Over the objections of ship's surgeon Paul Bettany, the proud, courageous Crowe chooses to trust his tactical instincts and soldier on, ignoring the possibility of cataclysmic defeat. Along the way, the Surprise makes a pit stop at the Galapagos Islands, where Bettany's fascination with natural science is piqued by the discovery of new species. The tension between Crowe and Bettany spins off the volatile intersection of science and warfare, two disciplines that inform each other even as they exist at cross purposes. Reaching back for the gentle lyricism of his early Australian films, such as The Last Wave and Picnic At Hanging Rock, Weir strikes a careful balance between quiet, whimsical passages of respite and Darwinian discovery, and the punctuating violence of two great ships in battle. On a production of this magnitude, few actors have the presence to assert themselves above the cacophony, but Crowe carries the film with the rare combination of charisma and brute masculinity that has made him a star. Lording over a watery battlefield characterized by long, eerie silences and sudden bursts of action, Crowe looks like the hero in a Sergio Leone Western, and Master And Commander honors him with a worthy showdown.
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