A swashbuckling, bodice-ripping, 18th Century romp with a dance club pulse, "Plunkett and Macleane" is a slick, modern, action-comedy dropped daringly into the ambiance of a costume drama.
Based very, very loosely on the criminal career of two English highwaymen who became notorious hijacking the wealthy in London's Hyde park, the film stars hip, hot, "Trainspotting" alumni Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle as the pair of gentlemen thieves, something akin to Butch and Sundance fused with Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Miller plays James Macleane, a scam artist and aspiring blue blood, determined to buy his way into 1700s high society. He finds his ticket in an unlikely place -- in the company of Will Plunkett, a former apothecary who turned to street-level petty crime after going bankrupt. Their scheme: Put the polish on Macleane and send him into the most posh parties, where he'll scope out who's worth robbing on their way home. The duo then don masks and stage hold-ups, Macleane being so seductively polite to his prey (especially the ladies) that he's dubbed "the Gentleman Highwayman."
Hotly pursued by a tyrannical lawman (Ken Stott) destined to fail, and a aristocratic hottie (Liv Tyler, sporting a surprisingly believable accent) destined to succeed, Macleane starts becoming attached to the good life -- especially when his criminal enterprise starts getting help from the inside in the form of a swishy, smitten lord (the great Alan Cumming). But in order for there to be a galloping, saved-at-the-gallows finale, you know someone has to get caught...
You can be sure the hind of heists pulled off by the real Plunkett and Macleane have been wildly romanticized by first-time director Jake Scott (son of "Alien" creator Ridley Scott), whose goal here is not historical accuracy, but raucous adventure.
On that count he certainly succeeds (even if the movie is dogged by untidy editing choices and unanswered questions). "Plunkett and Macleane" is infused with a tremendous amount of energy, by merit of its rich, stylized photography and creative, selective modernization that turns the traditional period piece on its ear.
The leads think, speak and swear like cocky, modern movie heroes, the costumes are almost as much rockabilly as Georgian, and the formal dance music of the day has been given a kick in the tempo by slipping a electronic beat behind it.
All of this makes the movie very of-the-moment, which means every updated alteration that lends to its sexy, vivacious and clever appeal today will probably seem ridiculous 10 years from now, therefore "Plunkett and Macleane" is by no means a keeper. But as Saturday matinee fare, it's an unapologetic joy ride for the too-cool-for-historical society smart set.