Plunkett & Macleane
''Plunkett & Macleane'' puts the audience in a unique time warp. It takes place in the mid-18th century, but at times seems like a tossed salad of contemporary buddy pics, westerns, and action films - never quite settling into its own niche. Then again, that's also part of its appeal.
Based on a true tale, Will Plunkett (Robert Carlyle), a low-class apothecary, meets James Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller), a down-on-his-luck former member of higher society. Lacking the ability to make do on their own, the two decide to combine their assets and make their fortune stealing from aristocrats. ''I have skills and brains,'' Plunkett reasons. ''You can pass yourself off as a gentleman.''
Macleane gladly embraces his masquerade, settling easily into powdered wigs and rich food while Plunkett tags along as his servant. Infiltrating conversations, Macleane learns where and when the aristocrats travel, and the pair stages holdups of their coaches.
But while Plunkett maintains his one-track mission to start over in America, Macleane's focus is derailed when on his first holdup he encounters Lady Rebecca Gibson (Liv Tyler), headstrong niece of the lord chief justice. Fumbling like a nervous schoolboy, Macleane stutters and apologizes while removing her jewelry, giving him the nickname ''The Gentleman Highwayman'' on posters tacked around town.
As their escapades escalate into a small fortune, Macleane risks exposure as he continues to pursue Lady Rebecca under his guise as a gentleman. The corrupt police general (Ken Stott) begins to grow suspicious, paving the way for conflicting loyalties and a swashbuckling climax.
For all its spunkiness, ''Plunkett & Macleane's'' direction makes it feel like one long trailer, complete with club music pounding during a stately ballroom scene. It's no surprise that first-time director Jake Scott is a veteran of music videos for groups such as U2 and REM; the MTV influence is evident in his quick-paced, swirling angles.
But what keeps the film from dissolving into shtick is the chemistry of its two stars, who first teamed in 1996's ''Trainspotting.'' Miller, last seen as Julie Christie's young lover in ''Afterglow,'' is effective playing a young man caught between classes: too poor to be in high society and too fragile to be a criminal. Setting his jaw like Billy Zane without the sneer, he brandishes a gun grandly but can't shoot straight; he wins back his gambling debts from the rich by stealing from them later.
Carlyle brings a gruff likability to Plunkett, the proud, street-smart thief who finds himself cleaning up after his partner's messes, scolding him like a father to a child. Their relationship is enjoyable to watch, which is why it's hard to believe Macleane would even consider leaving his partner to ride off with Lady Rebecca.
As the love interest, Liv Tyler isn't given a lot to do but look demure and breathe within the constrains of her corset. But Alan Cumming brings his usual slimy charm to the flamboyant Lord Rochester, an old friend of Macleane's who clears his path to enter high society.
''Plunkett & Macleane'' speeds along to a predictable ending, but its hybrid style makes for an entertaining ride. The film never takes itself too seriously, and its players look like they're having a good time playing dress-up.
* MPAA rating: R for some strong violence, sexuality and language.
'Plunkett & Macleane'
Robert Carlyle: Will Plunkett
Jonny Lee Miller: James Macleane
Alan Cumming: Lord Rochester
Liv Tyler: Lady Rebecca Gibson
Michael Gambon: Lord Chief Justice Gibson
Gramercy Pictures presents, in association with the Arts Council of England, a Working Title Production. Director Jake Scott. Producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Rupert Harvey. Executive producers Gary Oldman & Douglas Urbanski, Selwyn Roberts and Matthew Stillman. Screenplay by Robert Wade & Neal Purvis and Charles McKeown, based on an original screenplay by Selwyn Roberts. Director of photography John Mathieson. Editor Oral Norrie Ottey. Costume designer Janty Yates. Music Craig Armstrong. Production designer Norris Spencer. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.