They rob the rich…and that's it.
A brash, irreverent antidote to the stuffy English period movies that came before it, Plunkett and Macleane is jolly good entertainment as long as you can suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride.
I had the pleasure of first seeing Plunkett and Macleane on opening night at the Cineplex Odeon in the West End of London, England. My wife and I wanted to see a distinctly English movie at the cinema, so we were lucky when the timing worked out just right to see this film. Having a taste for a variety of UK cinema (Trainspotting, Branagh's Shakespearean movies, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), as well as the period pieces tweaked by this film, I suppose I was well primed to appreciate the full entertainment value of Plunkett and Macleane.
However, prior experience with English period piece cinema is certainly not a requirement. The attitudes of the characters and the movie soundtrack are thoroughly modern, only the setting and wardrobe are historical, so even the average American viewer is easily able to follow along without getting lost in foreign territory. The soundtrack alone should keep the blood flowing through even the most jaded veins, what with the strong pulsing beat and techno influences in many of the passages. It may also distract the perceptive viewer from the implausible gaps of plot or the understandable yet ludicrous casting of Liv Tyler. Yes, she looks pretty and can pout well, but is that a substitute for serious talent?
On the up side, the story does get the job done and that is to entertain us! We learn just enough about our title rogues to like them before launching into the series of escalating escapades from which they extricate themselves at the end with just seconds to spare. It is such good fun that you are persuaded to forgive Plunkett and Macleane its story shortcomings, for to do so would be most unfair. It simply provides solid fun and a good value for your entertainment dollar.
We begin in London, 1748. Captain James Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller) awaits sobriety in the Knightsbridge drunk tank, having hit bottom, but not so low as when he resorts to graverobbing upon his release. This draws the interest of highwayman Will Plunkett (Robert Carlyle), whose deceased pal's grave is the one being plundered. The minions of the law swoop down upon the pair, and it is off to Newgate Gaol they go. Circumstances dictate that these rogues work together, for Macleane's gift of the gab and aristocratic airs with Plunkett's street savvy combine to purloin their release. Realizing that this association could be mutually profitable, the duo decides to join forces.
Drawing on Plunkett's cash reserves, they outfit Macleane as a well-appointed gentleman, with the right looks, clothes, and posh address, and Plunkett as his servant. Macleane will identify those of the noble elite who are most ripe for plunder, and then the pair will spring into action as determined highwaymen. The plan goes perfectly when Macleane attends a party at the home of his colorful friend Lord Rochester (Alan Cumming) and targets the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Gibson (Michael Gambon) as the one whose gambling was most successful. The hold-up does relieve the Lord of his substantial winnings, as well as the jewelry from his niece Lady Rebecca (Liv Tyler), with whose charms Macleane is well and truly smitten. The young Lady, bored with her aimless existence, seems enamored of her robber as well.
Further adventures in robbery yield more loot, which Plunkett is storing up to pay for passage to America where both men can start anew (and with a fat bank account!) Mr. Chance, who works for the Lord Chief Justice, is tasked to bring these rapidly successful desperadoes to heel. With cruel will, he sets to his task with the goal of hanging both men at the infamous Tyburn tree. Nevertheless, Plunkett and Macleane continue their reign of robbery even as the price on their head reaches dizzying heights, though Macleane's increasing infatuation with Lady Rebecca irritates the practical-minded Plunkett.
Chance nearly ends their career when he ambushes their hold-up of the French Ambassador, but Plunkett and Macleane escape by a very narrow margin. They can sense that their run of luck is nearing its end, particularly when Chance uses Rebecca as bait to draw out the pair, using Lord Gibson's fortune as an even more enticing lure. Macleane cannot resist the prospect of rescuing his love and so the endgame is ready to begin. A trip to Tyburn, desperate flight, and a final confrontation with the coldly calculating Chance remain before we fade to black.
The anamorphic video transfer is quite good. The film generally has a dark cast to it, making the night scenes especially grim and gloomy, as well as revealing some loss of shadow detail. The picture is only moderately sharp and the colors, though often from an earth-toned palette or somewhat muted (though Lord Rochester does stand out!), are acceptably saturated. Dirt and film defects are thankfully absent, as are artifacts from digital enhancement. Blacks are inconsistent, ranging from solid to a somewhat bluish tint at some points, but not to excess.
Quite unlike your average period movie, Plunkett and Macleane has an active and vigorous sound mix. While the front soundstage is the primary workhorse, your rear surrounds are called in for decent ambient fill and an occasional split-stage effect. The LFE channel punches up the score nicely, but does not have too much else to enhance aside from an explosion and many gunshots. Dialogue is very clean and distinct.
Extra content is limited, though more than on too many big studio DVD releases. The trailers (letterboxed to 1.85:1) are of more than usual interest, as you will quickly see just how differently the trailers pitch Plunkett and Macleane to the US and UK audiences. Were you to have seen the US trailer, you might very well have written off the film, whereas the UK trailer is far more entertaining and true to Plunkett and Macleane. I suppose the producers figured us Yanks need all that ponderous explanation. The featurette is the typical short (four minute) fluff piece and the cast and filmmakers' notes are well-detailed. Thankfully, the disc comes in the preferred Amaray keep case.
The delicious fun of Plunkett and Macleane owes a great debt to the lively acting talents displayed therein. Jonny Lee Miller (Hackers, Trainspotting, Mansfield Park) has precisely the sort of dissolute snobbery of an aristocrat fallen into felony, just as Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting, The Full Monty, The World is Not Enough) exudes the blunt self-assurance with a flair for drama and a lust for loot that is appropriate for his blue-collar robber. These actors plainly had a ball with their roles, and it shows, but not nearly as much fun as Alan Cumming (GoldenEye, Emma, Eyes Wide Shut) had as Lord Rochester. My, what a scream! Devilish charm to spare, savory malice for the stodgy and slow of wit, and volumes spoken with the smallest of expressions. Finally, Ken Stott (as Thief Taker General Chance) could teach lessons on intimidation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it would have been nice to have a more full featured set of extras, I find it hard to be too critical given that Plunkett and Macleane did very modest box office business.
Rousing action, energetic music, entertaining actors, a fine looking anamorphic transfer, and a basic set of extras, who could ask for more from a DVD of a modest film? Strongly recommended for rental or purchase ($25 retail), and a good choice for a different sort of crowd-pleasing movie.
With the exception of Liv Tyler, these buggers are acquitted with style, my darling!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: USA Films
• Theatrical Trailers (US and UK)
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