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Commanding high-seas adventure

Orlando CityBeat Writer

Some things just are what they are. Certain phrases have become so well-understood that precise descriptions are no longer necessary for you to grasp everything you need or want to know about a thing or person. Examples of this include "it's a fixer-upper," "dittohead" and "that time of the month."

So when I tell you that Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a swashbuckler, that should be all you need to decide if you'll see it. It's much quicker to just say "swashbuckler" instead of "rip-roaring high-seas adventure with plenty of blood and thunder."

I would add just this: If you've never seen a swashbuckler, or are too young to remember the heyday of the genre, you should give it a try -- even if you don't think it's your kind of flick. It's really quite good; my main criticism of the film is that it wasn't released in time for Talk Like A Pirate Day. Arrrr.

The story comes straight from the popular series of novels by Patrick O'Brian concerning one Jack Aubrey, the captain of the HMS Surprise, a ship in the British fleet fighting Napoleon in 1805. Russell Crowe, channeling Errol Flynn and William Shatner, brings a fair amount of both to his cunning, charismatic portrayal. As Captain Kirk had his Spock & McCoy, Captain Aubrey has his foil in the ship's doctor, naturalist and all-around sage, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).

Surrounded by a finely-cast crew (notably featuring Billy Boyd of the Lord of the Rings movies), Aubrey and Bettany write their names in the history books -- the former in war, the latter in science. There are also a substantial number of very young lads playing the deckhands (director Peter Weir always gets really good performances out of child actors), and their presence makes the story more intimate, particularly when they get hurt or killed.

The tale takes place near the Galapagos Islands, where the Surprise has been sent to stop a French supply vessel that is larger and more deadly. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, punctuated by expertly-shot sea scenes (done in a tank for the most part, though you'd never know it), interesting crew plotlines, and plenty of masculine male bonding, and I mean plenty. Lord Nelson (the unseen but frequently referred-to admiral of the fleet) gets more love and respect from this bunch than any female (and in the one scene where a woman actually appears, she's treated like a space alien). This is a man's, man's, man's, man's, man's movie.

Master and Commander is great as an archetype of the genre, and if you love adventure, you can't go wrong here. The formula for these sorts of pictures is as set in stone as the Western, but thanks to the superb direction and camerawork, it comes off as fresh and invigorating as the sea spray. Though it's aimed at fans of the books and older moviegoers, this film is so well-made that nearly anyone -- apart from the easily seasick -- can get swept away. The people who always complain that they don't make 'em like that anymore can just shut up now.

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