Plunkett & Maclean (1999)

D: Jake Scott
S: Johnny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Liv Tyler

OK highwayman flick which sadly becomes ponderous and self-important (not to mention preposterous) in its latter stages. Directed by Jake Scott, who for now will remain best known as son of Ridley and nephew of Tony, the film has an exuberance and brashness which works in small doses, but it tends to operate at such a hysterical pace that it eventually overwhelms its thinly stretched plot. It betrays certain genetically characteristic fondness for widescreen visuals of fog, rain, and rolling hills, but it is edited like a commercial and scored like a rock video with deliberately anachronistic techno-tunes with classical samples. Its leads play well amid the noise and haste, but none of them are given wholly realised characters, which deprives the film of the kind of heart and depth needed to get away with all this contrived 'in your face' attitude.

Johnny Lee Miller is a former soldier who runs across lowlife thief Robert Carlyle in rather disgusting circumstances best left to an actual viewing. They team up, with Miller patrolling high-society parties in search of the wealthy and stupid and the two then robbing them on their way home. Things get troublesome when Miller falls for Liv Tyler, whose savvyness and determination are all 1990s and not even slightly 1748, niece of one of their potential victims. Meanwhile sadistic and ambitious Ken Stott heads up a band of would-be thieftakers and attempts to bring the villain/heroes in.

Based on an original screenplay accredited to Selwyn Roberts and very loosely on real historical figures, the script has been concocted by three separate writers and is the weak centre which ultimately brings the film crashing down. The set up is intriguing and the initial stages of the quite deliberately Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-styled partnership proceed nicely. But after a series of robbery montages and the establishment of antagonism between Michael Gambon as Tyler's uncle and Miller, the story has nowhere to go. It becomes a series of aimless escapades which then suddenly arrive at an abrupt and over-inflated climax. Scott lends immense weight to scenes proceeding Miller's execution which the character has not deserved, and the furore which follows is like something from a Mel Brooks parody. It ends with what one presumes should be a happy grin of defiance, but by then has long lost whatever ground it had gained.

Scott tackles this material gamely, but he does not fully overcome the fundamental weaknesses. The film has a good sense of the grotesque and wades in among the world of the haves and have nots of 18th Century society with ease. Supporting performances from the likes of Gambon and Alan Cumming are fun, and there are plenty of sight gags and one-liners to keep you distracted for a while. But it doesn't hold. Carlyle and Miller are not quite stars enough to transcend the cardboard characters and Tyler is lovingly photographed but virtually part of the scenery, as if often the case in films of this type. When the film needs to settle down and get a grip on the audience it completely fails. It has a look and feel which works well enough and continues to sustain the atmosphere throughout the latter stages, though the constant insistence on pepsi-maxing the action with rapid edits and noisy songs tends to undermine rather than enhance the action. There are one or two bravura moments and one gets a sense that there were good intentions in there somewhere, but this is ultimately a rather empty and silly film.

Casual audiences may get a kick out of it, but despite its striking advertising campaign, it is not an action-packed romp that will have legs at the box-office. It may prove more interesting in later years if and when Scott has gotten past this and onto something more substantial. For now it's vaguely interesting and fun for a while, but really not a must-see.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.