A strikingly designed and lensed but otherwise chaotic costume romp about two highwaymen in 18th century London, “Plunkett & Macleane” has all the hallmarks of a production helmed by a first-time, former musicvid and commercials director , written by four scripters and “overseen” by nine — count ’em, nine — producers. Though amusing in spots, and briefly high-spirited in others, pic is hopelessly dyslexic in basic film grammar, dissipating both its onscreen talent and its premise of an irreverent modern take on costumers into a series of variable set pieces. In the U.K., producer-distrib Polygram is aiming to position the movie in the youth market as a kind of historical “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” with a cheeky (but unrepresentative) poster and trailer. Once word gets out, however, “P&M” won’t be hijacking much coin from patrons.
Opening reel effectively sets a slightly stylized, abstract look — with Norris Spencer’s almost Felliniesque production design and John Mathieson’s color-noir photography — but is totally incomprehensible in establishing characters and plot. The year is 1748, the place London (re-created with a nice, out-of-kilter feel on Prague locations). The picture really starts in reel two, with Plunkett (Robert Carlyle), a bankrupt apothecary turned robber, and Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller), a down-at-heel aristocrat with a similar career path, meeting in Newgate Prison.
The pair form an uneasy partnership, with working-class Plunkett providing the muscle and business brains, and Macleane the tarnished breeding to get them into well-heeled society. Their entree comes in the louche, well-powdered form of Macleane’s former acquaintance Lord Rochester (Alan Cumming, in the pic’s standout comic performance), who invites Macleane to a gambling soiree where he crosses eyes with Rebecca (Liv Tyler), niece of Lord Chief Justice Gibson (Michael Gambon).
That night, the masked P&M hold up Rebecca and her uncle on their way home and earn the sobriquet Gentlemen Highwaymen, from Macleane’s courteous behavior toward his victims. As their renown mounts with further robberies, and Parliament gets nervous about law and order, the ruthless Chance (Ken Stott), Thief Taker General, is assigned to hunt down the daring duo. Chance’s initial attempts are unsuccessful, but then P&M start making mistakes, Macleane courts disaster by trying to romance Rebecca, and Plunkett gets increasingly anxious to make a clean break and head for America.
Time and again the movie — scripted by Robert Wade, Neal Purvis and Charles McKeown, “based on an original screenplay by Selwyn Roberts” — promises to become what it was clearly intended to be: a lively, “Tom Jones”–like adventure with a laddish, anti-establishment tone.
But the script and dialogue are nowhere near well-tooled enough, and the film’s generally dark, cold look and baroque design play against the lighter touch required. Though he certainly puts the reported $ 15 million budget up on the screen, helmer Jake Scott (son of Ridley Scott) seems happiest when pushing ahead to his next montage sequence, each of which has the brio that should have informed the whole movie.
Carlyle, with a convincing cockney accent, and Lee Miller, as the rumpled pretender, are strong, with considerable chemistry between them. Though she’s clearly spent time on her English vowels, Tyler is only adequate as Rebecca, a well-bred young lady who’s intrigued by Macleane’s derring-do. Making the biggest impression, in smaller roles, are Stott as the P&M’s vicious nemesis and Cumming as the wildly camp Rochester, who manages to give even the so-so dialogue a classy touch.
Janty Yates’ costume design, ranging from the outre to the grimy, is one of the few consistent pleasures. Otherwise, the pic’s production confusion extends to the music, which mixes regular scoring with rock numbers in a desperate attempt to cover all bases. The ending also plays fast and loose with the facts of the real characters on whom the film is based.