Stealing from the future

Movie: Plunkett & Macleane

Plunkett & Macleane
Length: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Studio: Gramercy Pictures
Release Date: 1999-10-01
Cast: Johnny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Liv Tyler
Director: Jake Scott
Screenwriter: Robert Wade, Charles MeKeown, Neal Purvis
Music Score: Craig Armstrong
WorkNameSort: Plunkett & Macleane
Our Rating: 2.50

What's a nice 18th-century English period piece like "Plunkett and Macleane" doing in a rowdy "Trainspotting" place like this? Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle, both of whom appeared in the acclaimed 1995 Scottish comic drama, might have asked themselves that question about this action-and-romance romp.

"Plunkett and Macleane," the directorial debut of Jake Scott (Ridley's son and Tony's nephew), certainly buzzes with infectious energy, thanks to a slick, quick-cut editing style indebted to MTV. But it's hopelessly, annoyingly anachronistic, with 20th-century Cockney slang and a jarringly inappropriate soundtrack that's all insistent techno grooves spiked with occasional string samples.

Loosely based on real-life characters and events, Scott's movie at its heart is a mismatched-buddy picture. James Macleane (Miller) is a former soldier who attaches the title of "Captain" to his name, in an effort to scam his way into aristocratic society. Will Plunkett (Carlyle) is a small-time criminal and former apothecary.

The two meet cute, sort of, during an evocative opening scene. Plunkett, arrested for public drunkenness, is being held captive in a fog-shrouded stone prison when he spies a brutal robbery, and its equally cruel postlude. The slacker and the thief, through circumstances involving a grisly midnight autopsy in a cemetery, soon find their fates entwined.

The new scheme: Macleane will continue to masquerade as a gentleman, dancing and romancing his way into privileged details about the location of family treasures, and then the two will simply take great advantage of that inside information.

It's a partnership that references "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and a philosophy that borrows from Robin Hood, except, of course, that these guys steal from the very rich and give to themselves.

The scenes of derring-do, with the masked, longcoat-wearing robbers riding into the night, are real grabbers, particularly a raid of the wedding party of the richest woman in England, previously the giver of a sexually transmitted gift -- the pox -- that Macleane can't return. The two robbers stomp their way across a food-laden table and make their dramatic exit to the blinding sights and booming sounds of fireworks.

Their plans for early retirement and a move to America are challenged by the pursuit of Chance (Ken Stott, truly frightening), a brutal, politically ambitious Thief Taker (high-ranking police officer), and the complications of a genuine romance.

Macleane, an inveterate womanizer, falls hard for Lady Rebecca (Liv Tyler), the lovely, pipe-smoking daughter of the realm's Lord Chief Justice (Michael Gambon). Tyler, although nicely faking her way through the accent, doesn't quite fill out the role of a young woman who is so taken with the exploits of the "Gentlemen Highwaymen" that she pastes newspaper clippings of their adventures all over her bedroom. Gambon is right on target as a blustery blue blood facing a sudden loss of power.

"Plunkett and Macleane" ends on a daring, whiz-bang high note, and comic-relief credit ought to be given to Alan Cumming as Lord Rochester, a wealthy, sharp-tongued dandy who makes this confession to a curious Macleane: "I swing every way." But the film never quite transcends its identity as a strange hybrid of post-modern pop and a study of the hypocrisy hiding beneath those powdered wigs.