Director Jake Scott’s aesthetically unmoored period action flick, Plunkett and Macleane, is so desperate to be a hipster swashbuckler that— like its eponymous heroes— it’ll shamelessly steal from and sleep with anyone. Although concerned with the true-crime adventures of one of Britain’s endless string of Gentlemen Highwaymen (the ” . . . and give to the poor” requirement is dropped from the Robin Hood credo here), this film could have easily been set anywhere and anywhen guns blaze, electronica thumps, guttersnipes put on Dickensian airs, and gilded aristocratic fops joke about “swinging both ways” while their pox-carrying ladies cruise for rough trade. (It doesn’t count for much in the end, but there’s some kind of dubious accomplishment in making 1743 London seem like the mayor’s vision of Saturday night at a Gatien-owned club.)
The tag team of Plunkett and Macleane itself is as much an odd hybrid as everything else onscreen. Plunkett (Robert Carlyle, a walking physical anachronism in other films, but perfect here) is a career robber who has a flash of criminal inspiration when he happens upon Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller), a beggar and drunk who, as he so eloquently puts it, “knows da rich.” Plunkett convinces the pretty and well-mannered Macleane to case the houses of the upper classes, the two riding in on horseback afterward to rob various powdered dukes stumbling home after a night of gambling and cockfighting. It’s just a gig to our Plunkett, but Macleane, who clearly suffers from some serious title envy, is soon impressing robbery victims with his polite erudition— this when he’s not on the circuit with the queenly Earl of Rochester (Alan Cumming, of course) making eyes at a cabinet minister’s niece (Liv Tyler, essentially playing a well-girdled bosom).
That Macleane’s romantic fantasies will lead to disaster is, of course, clear to both the audience and Plunkett, setting up the expected team-busting conflicts, declarations of love, brushes with the law, last-minute escapes, etc., all of the film’s climactic bits delivered Hollywood action-movie style. The film’s fundamental instability could be mistaken as an aesthetic choice, except that its excess isn’t period or down-and-dirty ribald but plain desperate. Carlyle gives a credible performance, but most of the other acting boils down to a procession of accents, and the script is as full of holes as some of the highwaymen’s bullet-riddled victims— why not throw a drum-and-bass track over everything?