Plunkett & Macleane

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Jake Scott
Screenplay by Robert Wade & Neal Purvis and Charles McKeown, based on an original screenplay by Selwyn Roberts
Starring Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Liv Tyler, Ken Stott, Alan Cumming, Michael Gambon

Rated R, 102 minutes. (1999)

As pretty and vacuous as a supermodel but with a disturbing amount of cruelty, gore and filth, Plunkett & Macleane is an oddity, and not a very good one.

The film, about two highwaymen in squalid (for the poor) and silly (for the frivolous rich) mid 18th-century London, brings an MTV style to Charles Dickens territory. Plunkett (Robert Carlyle, from Trainspotting and The Full Monty) is not only a wily thief but also a skilled apothecary, an expert marksman and an explosives expert. The only thing he lacks to make his criminal endeavors work are the manners and appearance of a gentleman, which are supplied by profligate, penniless but handsome Jonny Lee Miller (also featured in Trainspotting).

The two begin their career as the "Gentlemen Highwaymen," robbing the rich - but politely. They are pursued by Thief Taker General Chance (Ken Stott). We can tell he's a hypocritical, sadistic bad guy because a) he's dressed like a Puritan minister, all in black, and b) he likes to gouge people's eyes and beat up whores. This is a long way from Merchant and Ivory or even Tom Jones.

Macleane also loves/lusts after Lady Rebecca Gibson (Liv Tyler, looking luscious), who despite being the niece of the Lord Chief Justice (wonderful character actor Michael Gambon) is turned on by the increasingly daring exploits of the thieves. She pastes up their clippings on her bedroom wall, like today's 14-year-olds pin up Ricky Martin and N'Sync posters. Alan Cumming, as foppish Lord Rochester, purses his lips and tosses off what passes for wit in this film, but at least he seems to be having a good time.

That's about it for both plot and character development, neither of which receives anywhere near the attention that the film's look or its cheerfully anachronistic soundtrack get. Without a time machine we'll never really know what kind of music was being played in 1748 London, but I'll bet it wasn't zydeco and punk rock. These and other out-of-time interpolations mean to be cool and post-modern but end up mostly annoying, although I must admit I'm an old fogy about these things.

Visually P&M fares much better, thanks to director Jake Scott and director of photography John Mathieson. Scott has a great eye for the grunge of muddy streets, the flower-like bloom of gunpowder when a pistol is fired in the darkness, or the shock of the first shovelful of brown dirt heaped on a white-shrouded corpse. Janty Yates' costumes are also full of clever treats, like the oversize wigs and hats that make you wonder how these people kept their heads erect.

But Scott's background in music videos and commercials (P&M is his first feature) shows. He's too busy with fireworks displays and horses clattering across rain-soaked cobblestones to tell a coherent story or develop the characters. The arc of the film is supposed to be that of a buddy picture, where the mismatched odd couple learn to respect and value each other, but these nuances, like the Macleane-Rebecca love story, get lost in the shuffle.

Part of the problem is a thin script, or one that's been worked over by too many hands. The political machinations behind the action (the real thieves are the ones in power) remain cloudy. Both Plunkett's and Macleane's motivations are stated, not dramatized. Plunkett wants to make enough money stealing to go to America; pretty-boy Macleane remains a narcissistic blank despite some last-minute heroics. P&M is also short on wit: Macleane, trying to compose an ode to his beloved, asks Plunkett "What rhymes with Rebecca?" "Pecker," Plunkett sneers.

Plunkett & Macleane is never really boring, but it is tiring. To get the most out of it, rent it when it comes out on video and watch it with the sound off.

(This article originally appeared in Films in Review, www.filmsinreview.com)

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