The last time we saw Russell Crowe on the silver screen, he was a neurotic mathematician in the Best Picture winner, “A Beautiful Mind.”

Naturally, the next role he chose was a British naval commander. We all saw that coming, didn’t we?

I might have thought differently about an Australian actor playing a British bloke, but since it was Russell Crowe, I figured he could make it work, which he did. Sure, he has never been accused of being the nicest guy in the world, but he sure is one hell of an actor, and he shows it in once again in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which is a very entertaining movie.

The timing for this movie couldn’t be better, now that swashbuckling pirate movies are “in” again, thanks to this summer’s smash hit, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” But the one thing these two movies really have in common is an incredibly long title.

The humor is very subtle in “M and C,” as opposed to the side-splitting laughs Johnny Depp gives us in “Pirates.” “M and C” isn’t even a pirate movie, really, it just looks like a pirate movie in some places. There isn’t a whole lot of action here either and “M and C” is a lot classier than “Pirates.” But it’s just as entertaining.

The movie starts out with some nice background information, telling us the year was 1805 and Napoleon Bonaparte (a.k.a. “Bonny” which is the retarded nickname some of the Brit’s give him) is “ruling” Europe and the only thing in his way is the British navy.

Then we go to this ship, commanded by Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and some French ship sneaks up on them and attacks. So Crowe must stick to his sense of duty to the Queen, and find these Frenchy’s and shove a few cannonballs up their mast. The problem is the Frenchy’s have a bigger, faster and overall better ship than the Brits. But Lucky Jack doesn’t run from a fight, and they hit the high seas in search of this enemy ship.

There isn’t much that I didn’t like about this movie, but one of the things was that this was a fairly predictable movie.

It’s not that a movie absolutely has to have twists and turns like a David Mamet or M. Night Shyamalan movie, but it shouldn’t be predictable, and in this movie you could see almost everything coming, and there weren’t really any surprises.

The movie has a runtime of two hours and

18 minutes, but it feels a lot longer, and it feels longer because the screenplay doesn’t really give us a tight plot. The movie is kind of episodic and the movie could’ve used a few re-writes to the screenplay.

There is an underlying story here, with sub-plots and all, it’s just that they could’ve been tightened up a little. Another little thing that bugged me was everyone says “Mister” before their names.

It’s a minor gripe, but it still got a tad annoying. And another thing that only a movie buff like me would notice, is that for some of the scenes at sea, it looks like they used the exact same sea set that director Peter Weir used in his last film, 1998’s wonderful The Truman Show. I know, another minor gripe, but still…

The acting here is solid all-around, but all of the performances revolve around Crowe’s fabulous performance. It’s almost like the chain of command hierarchy that they go by on the ship. Crowe is the commander and everyone else is under him, in the movie, and it feels like that in the performances as well.

He’s truly in charge, and he brings out the best in the other actors around him because he’s so damn good himself. Crowe does a British accent quite wonderfully and you couldn’t even tell that he was an Australian at all. Don’t be surprised if Crowe gets nominated for his third straight Best Actor Oscar for his performance here, because it is simply great and truly shows why he’s one of the best actors in Hollywood today. Paul Bettany has a solid performance here as well, and, if you’re a “Lord of the Rings” fan, look for a smaller performance from Billy Boyd, who plays the hobbit Pippin.

The screenplay, written by Weir and John Collee, is fairly solid, but it’s just too damn long. There is some very nice dialogue from Crowe and Paul Bettany’s characters and the themes about duty and loyalty are nice as well. But Weir hasn’t written a screenplay in 13 years, and neither has Collee, and it shows.

It’s just too episodic, and the sub-plots seem to take over the main story, which isn’t that strong to begin with.

It’s worth noting here that the cinematography is outstanding and probably the best of the year so far. Russell Boyd’s camera work, with grand, sweeping shots, portray the vast magnificence of the ocean and he captures the few fighting/action sequences nicely as well. The editor is a little to scissor-friendly with these scenes, but they’re still captured wonderfully by Boyd.

Director Peter Weir seems to always love a challenge. He does something different with every film he does. His last film, The Truman Show, he showed us that Jim Carrey can indeed be a viable dramatic actor.

He generally makes smaller, character-driven films and this movie is the first time he’s directed a big-budget epic, and he’s damn good at it. He handles the cinematography and the actors with ease and all the elements of the film seem to flow together very nicely, holding up the weak story on Crowe’s performance, Boyd’s cinematography and Weir’s direction.

“Master and Commander: Far Side of the World” is a movie about duty, loyalty and friendship, and how, sometimes, one of those elements has to take a back seat to the others. If you’re a fan of Crowe and Weir, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re a fan of a tight, concise story, you just might be disappointed.

But Crowe and Weir are so great that you’ll hardly notice the shoddy story and most likely will be thoroughly entertained.

Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World is out November 14, 2003.

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