Director Peter Weir's epic throws you smack on the deck of a British warship in the middle of the ocean in 1805, capturing with ecstatic detail exactly what such an experience might have been like. From the very young boys living a life that should surely belong only to men, to the basic horror of brain surgery performed with a spoon, Weir (Witness) creates a world that is at once spectacular and unfailingly believable.
On the other hand, we can all probably agree on the supreme being that is Russell Crowe, who even slightly plumped up here is still pulsing with mischievous, commanding charm. As "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise, Crowe plays a sea captain filled with ambitious pride. He is desperate to pursue and overtake the superior French ship that attacks his own in the opening sequence, while torn between obligation to the nearly 200 men (and boys) under his stewardship. In breathing life into this role, it doesn't hurt that Crowe is one of the few actors alive who can make a ruffled shirt look like a perfectly masculine garment.
Aubrey's friendship with the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, Crowe's "A Beautiful Mind" co-star), is what prevents Master and Commander from being nothing more than a staggering series of very special effects.
Their complex rapport is like a decidedly less homoerotic version of what George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg shared in "A Perfect Storm." Also unlike the obvious and distracting visual effects of that film, Master and Commander is jam-packed with computer-generated images that actually look real.
The joy "Master and Commander" lies both in its roaring action and its emotional intricacies, a rare and great thing indeed for such a big-budget work. And when those not predisposed to its genre can't quite figure out what is going on during all the thunderous, epic battling, there is always the divine pleasure of Crowe and Bettany to lure you back into the story.