Ahoy!


Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) commands the English warship Surprise in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. His standing orders are to patrol the Pacific, prowling for French ships and blasting them to smithereens with his big-ass cannons.

He gets his wish when he runs across a massive gunship, which outguns and outmans the Surprise two to one. After two less-than-successful encounters, Aubrey is determined to pursue his opponent, no matter the cost, despite the cautious advice of the ship’s doctor and his BFF Steven (Paul Bettany).

What a terrific motion picture. Extraordinarily staged, magnificently acted and transfixing from the first frame to the last, Master and Commander is the ultimate nautical war movie, and yes I include Tom Arnold’s McHale’s Navy in that list. Director Peter Weir crams an amazing amount of seafaring awesomeness into 138 minutes: two massive ship vs. ship gun battles, a cat and mouse chase through an oceanic maelstrom, exploding gunnery crews, a thrilling naturalist hike, do-it-yourself abdominal surgery, a curse that stops the wind from blowing, a hunt for an Albatross and a massive, feature-ending battle royale complete with rope-swinging, sword-fighting, trash-talking and diabolical subterfuge.

I have been anticipating this Blu-ray release since the technology was unveiled. One of my favorite DVD releases, even in its bare-bones pre-collector’s-edition incarnation, Master and Commander proved to be a technical marvel and one of the finest audio reference discs a sea-faring brother could ask for. So here we go, the next generation of optical home video sporting a newly revamped high-def version of the movie that would have deservedly rolled to Academy Award victory if the Lord of the Rings juggernaut hadn’t been in the way.

And…it’s disappointing.

The 2.40:1, 1080p video overhaul is certainly an upgrade over the DVD treatment, and there are moments of brilliance, but overall the picture quality fails to earn itself a “reference quality” mark. The PQ lacks the sheen and detail refinement of some of the top-tier Blu releases. Color levels are uneven, especially skin tones, which sometimes seem washed out. In the aftermath of the final battle, for example, there’s a scene with Aubrey in the enemy ship’s hold and it looks like he’s jaundiced — it was jarring. As I said, there are some great moments, particularly the sequences of ship-to-ship warfare (which look like works of art), the trip on the Galapagos Islands (offering a stronger color palette than the gray, blue and, er, gray of the happenings on the Surprise) and the storm chase.

Which allows me to segue into the strongest part of the disc: the audio. Boasting a lossless DTS HD 5.1 master track, the sound mix is an ear orgy. During the quiet times, the creaking timbers of the ship, the lapping of the waves, the soft ringing of the bell will transport your living room aboard the Surprise. Things get wild when the action kicks in. The aforementioned storm chase, cannon fire and kick-ass finale battle sequence are a fierce onslaught of LFE and discrete surround work. Your lode-bearing walls will shudder from this audio treatment.

Unfortunately, it’s now back to the negativity. Easily the biggest downer of the release is the weak selection of extras. You know you’re in trouble when the best bonus is the batch of deleted scenes. After that, it’s downhill (or downwind). A pop-up map feature and a sporadically used trivia track are it. That’s right, one of the finest films in the last 10 years is given a total cornholing on supposedly the be-all, end-all of spinning discs. The DVD collector’s edition has much more to offer for supplements. A huge shame.

THE VERDICT
Not guilty, but just because the feature is superb. The execs at Fox should be keelhauled for this half-assed release, though.

 

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