Plunkett and Macleane (1999) Movie Review

Jake Scott, the director of Plunkett and Macleane, is the son of director Ridley Scott (Gladiator and Black Hawk Down), and this may explain why he, a young man without much of a resume, was given the chance to direct a feature length movie when his only previous credits was an episode of a TV show and one R.E.M. music video. His lack of a cinematic background notwithstanding (although he doesn’t lack a familial background in film, as his uncle Tony Scott (Spy Game) is also a director of some renown), Jake Scott’s Plunkett and Macleane is a peculiar breed of film. I’ve only seen two other films that use its technique — re: a historical movie backed up by modern music. In the case of Plunkett and Macleane, the film is set in 18th century England, but the instrumentals and much of the film’s score are 1990s electronica and even some techno.

Plunkett and Macleane stars Jonny Lee Miller (Hackers) as Macleane, a currently jailed criminal who claims to be a Captain and a gentleman. When two highwaymen’s robbery goes awry, Macleane is freed from his jail and escapes. Later, Macleane is re-arrested, but this time with one of the highwaymen, Plunkett (Robert Carlyle). The two are sentenced to prison, but through means better left unsaid (it’s disgusting), the two are freed. After witnessing the supposedly gentlemanly Macleane charm his way through the prison’s high society prisoners, Plunkett gets an idea: use Macleane to charm his way into the inner circles of English aristocracy in order to set them up for robbery! Macleane agrees, mostly because he’s tired of getting thrown in prison and wouldn’t mine acting and living like a gentleman again.

The pair’s plan goes smoothly until Macleane falls in love with Lady Rebecca (Liv Tyler), and a maniacal constable name Chance begins a crusade against them. Will the two highwaymen ever get caught? Will Plunkett ever get to North America in one piece to retire? Or better yet, will Macleane ever learn to shoot straight?

I’ve already mentioned the use of electronica and techno music in Plunkett and Macleane. The decision isn’t necessarily a bad one. Or at least it isn’t nearly as bad as when director Richard Donnor used modern music in LadyHawke to disastrous results. The music in Plunkett and Macleane doesn’t take away from the movie’s 18th century English setting, but actually provides some tempo to some rather potentially boring scenes. That isn’t to say everything’s fine and daddy — towards the end of the film Scott uses traditional music quite effectively to set the mood, proving that sometimes the old ways is the best way.

Plunkett and Macleane is a good movie to look at. I’ve never seen 18th century England look so dirty. The streets are overflowing with mud and sewage and the prisons look like morgues, even a wing of the prison called the “posh suites” that houses the rich prisoners. The English aristocracy is shown as covered from top to bottom in warts, greed, lust, and has never looked more revolting even covered in white powder and adorned in jewelry and wigs. In fact, one of Plunkett and Macleane’s best elements is its beautiful English scenery and its dirty, filth-ridden city streets. In his first feature, Jake Scott has shown a tremendous ability to bring 18th century England to vibrant life. I wouldn’t want to go there, not even for a visit, but it sure looks nice — in a grungy, don’t-come-near-me-or-I’ll-give-you-warts sort of way.

It helps that Plunkett and Macleane doesn’t take itself very seriously. It tries to be a swash-buckling type of film, and it does succeed in a way. The action is (intentionally) very brief and exciting and the nighttime raids by the two highwaymen are nicely shot. The fog in the countryside is used to great affect, and the movie doesn’t shy away from being disgusting (re: realistic), as is the case in the beginning when Macleane has to cut open a dead man’s stomach to retrieve a ruby that the man had swallowed before he died. The movie does manage to make some big errors that had me shaking my head. The scene where Plunkett and Macleane are ambushed and escapes by disappearing into a sewer while inside a parked carriage is a little hard to swallow. And of course, when the bad guys open the carriage, a bomb is waiting for them inside, blowing up just as its discovered. How clich’.

Despite that, the movie is a fun ride. It flows very smoothly and never bores. Plunkett and Macleane has an adventurous spirit, and it’s blissfully devoid of any resonance. Yes, the highwaymen rob from the rich, but except for a sterling candleholder that Plunkett tosses to some kids, the two keeps the money for themselves. Plunkett dreams of having enough money to escape to North America to start a new life, while Macleane is only concern with gambling his ill-gotten riches away as soon as he can get his hands on them. These guys aren’t exactly Robin Hood, if you get my drift.

The love story between Macleane and Rebecca seems tacked on, another unnecessary subplot that appears in all historical movies nowadays, so Plunkett and Macleane wasn’t the first to get bogged down in it. I’d much prefer if the movie had focused on the budding friendship between Plunkett and Macleane, as the two are so polar opposites that the movie is most fun when they’re butting heads.

Plunkett and Macleane isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but as Macleane shouts out at one point, at least it was “good for a laugh!” Or if I were an Englishman, at least it was “good for a laaf!”

Jake Scott (director) / Selwyn Roberts, Robert Wade, Neal Purvis, Charles McKeown (screenplay)
CAST: Jonny Lee Miller …. Macleane
Iain Robertson …. Rob
Robert Carlyle …. Plunkett
Alan Cumming …. Lord Rochester
Michael Gambon …. Lord Gibson
Liv Tyler …. Lady Rebecca Gibson

Buy Plunkett and Macleane on DVD