The story is essentially an outlaw movie with pistol-packing highwaymen instead of Colt-carrying cowboys or Thompson-toting gangsters. The cowboy hats and fedoras may have been replaced by powdered wigs, but most of the conventions and icons of the genre are still in place.
The screenplay is based on the real-life exploits of James Maclaine and his partner, Plunkett, who briefly captured the imagination of London with a series of holdups 250 years ago. (Maclaine is believed to have been the model for Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and, by association, in the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera.) But the film appears to be no closer to actual events than are any of the classic cinema accounts of John Dillinger or Wyatt Earp.
We meet well-spoken Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller) late one night as he flees the authorities; in a graveyard, he encounters the coarser Plunkett (Robert Carlyle), who forces him at gunpoint to eviscerate the corpse of a thief to extract a huge ruby the dead man had hidden by swallowing. Unfortunately, the authorities arrive in time to arrest both men, forcing Plunkett to ingest the gem himself. Since the class system within Newgate Prison makes Macleane practically one of the wardens, Plunkett enlists him to negotiate their freedom in return for the ruby, which must be painfully and disgustingly removed.
To Macleane's dismay, the lower-class Plunkett insists on becoming his new best friend. But when Plunkett outlines the scheme he is intent on, Macleane is smart enough to recognize its virtues. They have just enough money to dress Macleane as a gentleman; he will pass himself off as such while casing social gatherings for likely robbery victims. The two -- with Plunkett in the lead -- will then don masks and pull off easy holdups.
It's an uneasy partnership from the beginning. Macleane -- who, as the son of a somewhat well-off minister, has received an upper-class education -- has all the trappings of a gentleman...and all the vices. He is a snob and a compulsive gambler, and his inability to set aside his genteel manners while in his highwayman role repeatedly endangers the duo. He is also a believer in romantic love, and, as soon as he lays eyes on Rebecca (Liv Tyler), his already weak sense of caution diminishes even further -- never mind the fact that her guardian (Michael Gambon) is the Lord Chief Justice in charge of law enforcement. Macleane's unusually polite demeanor only increases the pair's notoriety.
The press -- such as it was in those days -- inflames the public imagination with tales of the Gentleman Highwayman. Much of Plunkett & Macleane is an able and entertaining romp, no more realistic than it has to be. Its greatest flaw is the casting of Miller (Trainspotting, Hackers), who continues to have virtually no screen presence. He's the classic bland, good-looking young man, and it's hard to remember what he looks like 24 hours after walking out of the theater. His utter anonymity is aggravated by the pairing with Carlyle (The Full Monty, Trainspotting), who has both a more interesting face and a more gripping talent.
The movie's other problem is that Scott tries to make things feel more contemporary: He has pulled out every anachronistic trick in the book. While you have to applaud his boldness, the flourishes are often more distracting than helpful. You get used to the occasional contemporary dialogue. ("Would you mind awfully fucking off?" Macleane says at one point.) Besides, more often than not, apparently anachronistic popular idioms turn out not to be inappropriate to the time, as a perusal of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals. But it's difficult to ignore the use of MTV-ish editing or camera movement and impossible to keep your head within the film's world when Scott unleashes zydeco and disco and hard-rock tunes on the soundtrack.
This deliberate use of cultural juxtapositions is nothing new: It was Ken Russell's stock-in-trade for years. Scott's techniques, on the other hand, often seem to contradict his ambitions: He's after the traditional qualities of outlaw movies -- thrills, suspense, action -- but his stylistic gimmicks undercut the viewers' potential to identify with the main characters or lose themselves in the illusion of realism that is essential for creating those qualities.
For all that, Plunkett & Macleane is fun: In addition to Carlyle, you get to see Alan Cumming camping it up all over the place as Macleane's foppish, polysexual pal, Rochester. That alone is worth the shtick-up.