Russell Crowe bulks up to play the role of Capt. Jack Aubrey in the rousing historical epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. But the concentrated force with which Crowe propels Peter Weir's masterful and commanding film has little to do with the expanse of his spiffy uniform or the thickness of the sandy-colored seaman's pigtail he sports with such panache: The Australian brawler would dominate the screen even if he were as skinny as a gangplank.
There's not another movie star today who maneuvers so convincingly over the map of gruff, middle-aged masculine complexity, a rough land triangulated between angry heroism, conflicted honor, and matey cheek. Crowe has a knack for making any man he plays feel vital, modern, authoritative, and real, whether in the Roman arena of ''Gladiator'' or the 1950s of ''L.A. Confidential.'' I can't think of a better choice to play an officer loyal to Admiral Lord Nelson in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars -- or a movie star who stands a better chance of getting landlubbers (by which I mean many women and young folks, or anyone who is not already devoted to the naval novels of the late Patrick O'Brian) to see this bracing, beautifully made saga about friendship, honor, courage, terrible living conditions, and watery adventures among men and boys.
Of course, I write this as a person who hasn't read more than one of O'Brian's 20 Aubrey novels herself. (Purists doubtless know already that the script by Weir and John Collee combines aspects of the first novel, ''Master & Commander,'' which establishes the vibrant friendship between Aubrey and his ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, with bits of the 10th book, ''The Far Side of the World,'' in which Aubrey's ship, the HMS Surprise, does battle with an aggressive and much more powerful enemy vessel off the coast of South America.) But I've seen plenty of seagoing movies. And even though this one is set among men coping with ruffles and scurvy (and lads treated like miniature adults, their childhoods left ashore), it gets closer to the truth of seafaring -- the precision, pride, tedium, and arduousness of it (not to mention the rot and stink) -- than anything since ''Das Boot.'' Even more impressive, this apt and sensitive introduction to O'Brian's ripping maritime tales manages to make a period-piece saga feel modern -- capturing something timeless in the characters of all men.
''Master and Commander'' is a story in full billow; it sails through stretches of bloody battle, anxious waiting, wine-soaked relaxation, and marvelous scientific discoveries by the remarkable Maturin (Paul Bettany, well matched again with his ''A Beautiful Mind'' costar). Officers drink and joke while, down below, shipmates bicker and resolve their differences. In gale winds, hearty men puke. In scenes between Aubrey and Maturin, as the two men make music on violin and cello, Weir conveys an entire society in the creation of a duet. As Maturin studies the natural world at hand (''Your damned hobbies, Sir!'' Aubrey snaps during an argument), the filmmaker distills all the excitement of 19th-century scientific discovery into the study of a beetle. And when Maturin plies his surgical skills -- at one point he's his own patient -- the medical advances we take for granted come to look like miracles.
A distractible sort could argue that the movie glides on almost too smooth a current of action and repose: No scene of battle is so grand, nor is any authoritative decision by Captain Aubrey so impressive, that Weir holds it a gust too long. (We feel time passing only when a disembodied sailor's hand overturns the ship's hourglass.) Yet as he whooshes the plot along on swells of perfectly chosen music -- Ralph Vaughan Williams' ''Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis'' becomes the ship's stirring musical anthem -- the effect is properly awesome. Known for his attraction to stories about cultural dislocation (''Picnic at Hanging Rock,'' ''Witness,'' ''The Year of Living Dangerously,'' ''The Truman Show'') and his affinity for drama in contained spaces (Amish country, TV-universe bubble), Weir transforms a ship on the open sea into a neighborhood.
Which brings me back to Crowe and the vigor with which the actor takes command of his fellows. ''Name a shrub after me, something prickly and hard to eradicate,'' the captain tells the scientist as Maturin hikes off to explore the startling wildness of the Galapagos Islands. Too bad Maturin isn't an astronomer, too; a designated constellation would be the right honor for such a force as Aubrey, played by such a star as Crowe.