At times completely over the top, and with an anachronistic score that occasionally took me out of the movie, the 1999 British film Plunkett and Macleane is a romp about a pair of “gentleman highwaymen” who rob from the rich and give to the poor (themselves) back in mid-18th Century England. Captain James Macleane (Johnny Lee Miller) is a gentleman whose noble breeding is more exalted than his present estate. Squandering what little he has on gambling and drink, he finds himself at the start of the movie directed by Jake Scott (Ridley’s son), in prison sleeping off a drunken escapade from the evening before.
From out of the fog emerges a team of bandits, among them Will Plunkett (Robert Carlyle), and a ruby that change the life of fop-wannabe Macleane forever. Although the ruby has been swallowed, lying within the gut of now-dead and buried victim of the botched robbery, Plunkett orders Macleane (at gunpoint) to rescue it (rather gorily) from deep within the maggot-infested corpse. They’re captured, but the quick thinking Plunkett swallows the large gem before the two are carted off to prison.
What next ensues is a convenient partnership between the two men as they set to pillaging the dandified English aristocracy while earning their admiration (and not a few swoons from the ladies in their powdered wigs and décolletage). Macleane’s motives are simple: to have enough to live like his friend the Earl of Rochester. (Alan Cumming in a hilarious, over-the-top performance—think Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent in Blackadder III, but on steroids.)
Plunkett motives are a bit more compelling. An apothecary who’s lost his shop, Plunkett is filled with angst over the death of his wife, who became ill while they were living rough. His sole ambition in this endeavor is to acquire enough money to start over in the American colonies. In Macleane, Plunkett sees a means to an end—the breeding and polite manners he lacks, which will gain them access to the riches needed to make a quick killing and the hell out of town.
Plunkett invests his saved up plunder to buy an appropriately swanky address and attire for Macleane, which will give him entrée into society. Once there, they set to work.
Unforeseen circumstances establish obstacles in their way, as an incompetent Lord High Justice (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter) with a beautiful daughter (Liv Tyler, Lord of the Rings) and his vicious police chief Chance (Ken Stott, Balin in 2012’s The Hobbit) pursue them.
Plunkett and Macleane is not an especially deep film, although it asks the interesting question, “What makes a person noble?” Interestingly, it is Macleane’s baser instincts and Plunkett’s nobler soul that ultimately get them into the most trouble.
The movie reunites Trainspotting castmates Carlyle (who played Begbie) and Miller (who played Sick Boy). Robert Carlyle is fantastic here as the practical, poor and very smart Plunkett. He brings to the role of Will Plunkett his extraordinary ability to render what might be an unsympathetic character, pretty sympathetic (eventually, anyway). Johnny Lee Miller is also fine as the would-be dandy Macleane. Cumming’s foppish Earl of Rochester, who turns out to be a bit of a proto-Scarlet Pimpernel, is delightfully over the top as the aristo who sees his job as “corrupting the kids.”
Plunkett and Macleane is an amusing popcorn movie, very slightly turning on its head the notion of nobility and heroism. Part American Western (especially Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), part pirate movie (in the pre-Pirates of the Caribbean era), it was savaged by many critics when it came out in 1999. In my opinion, 12 years after its release, it plays much better than the reviews suggest. This is not a “great” film, feeling at times more like a music video than a feature film, with its pulsing ‘90s disco soundtrack—more style than plot. But it’s fun, loud, raunchy at times; there is much to enjoy, particularly in the performances from Carlyle (who looks like he’s having a blast) and Cumming.