Master and Commander is an exciting and very unconventional epic-on-the-high-seas, which is unquestionably one of 2003's best films, but is at the same time not quite worthy of the instant-classic many critics have bestowed upon it.
Based on the first and tenth of Patrick O'Brian's 20 "Aubrey/Maturin" novels, Master and Commander tells the story of the crew of the H.M.S. Surprise, a ship in the British Navy at the time of the 19th century Napoleonic Wars. Led by the captain (Russell Crowe) and his first officer (Crowe's A Beautiful Mind costar Paul Bettany), the crew of the ship engages in only two battle scenes, spending the rest of the film preparing for battle, engaging in dialogue, and playing musical instruments.
And while the film may not have the excitement of your average shoot-'em-up action epic, 'Master' makes the most of its few action sequences, and makes them count. When was the last comic-book actioner you saw in which a teenaged supporting character loses his arm in the opening scene- and keeps fighting throughout the movie?
The Australian director Peter Weir, who previously made the historical war film Galipoli and later segued into such middle-brow American fare as Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show, does an excellent job directing action and dialogue alike. Yes, it's an "action" movie, but the most memorable parts of the film are a dinner table conversation, a visit to the Galapagos Islands, and a character performing surgery on himself.
Despite all these positive elements, one can't help but notice that there's something missing- the move just doesn't have that little something that separates a good film from a great one. Which is why it's likely to get lost in the Oscar shuffle amid the Lord of the Rings juggernaut.
Yes, Master and Commander is a superior entertainment, and is better than Gladiator. But not THAT much better.