Film: The Big Picture: Flintlock and two smoking barrels

Click to follow
Period drama is now thought to be so cobwebbed with cliche that most producers and directors won't try anything historical unless they can cast it in the image of the Nineties. The past now has to pull its weight not just in terms of contemporary "relevance", but in language and style, too. The prevailing idea seems to be that cinema audiences have time for the past only if it looks and sounds like the present. So anachronism has become the new orthodoxy.

At one end of the scale you have the high comedy of Shakespeare in Love, which directs the traffic between the 16th century and our own with self- conscious erudition and wit. At the other end, you have Plunkett & Macleane, a tale of two dandy highwaymen that re-imagines the mid-18th century as a sort of costumed rock video. The director, Jake Scott, whose previous credits are in the business of music videos, made plain his intentions when he decided "to liberate myself from being slavish to the history books". While certainly no one will accuse him of accuracy, this creative licence leaves him with a gap to fill - what do you put in the place of "the history"?

The answer turns out to be a buddy movie, based on the lives of two lesser- known highway desperadoes. Bankrupt James Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller) joins felonious forces with Will Plunkett (Robert Carlyle) while in Newgate prison, and once released they launch a cunning plan. With Plunkett's money, Macleane will don the habiliments of a London gentleman, insinuate himself into high society and identify those grandees most suitable for robbery. Notoriety quickly follows, and since movie outlaws also require an implacable adversary, here comes Thief-Taker General, Chance (Ken Stott), a shaven-headed sadist with a punitive line in dentistry. The film-makers aren't going to leave us puzzling over whom we should be rooting for. Even if Macleane is a dissolute coxcomb and Plunkett a chippy ruffian, they're glamorous rogues in the mould of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; they do their work with such charm, we're meant to think it an honour to be robbed by them. There's even a feisty blueblood named Rebecca (Liv Tyler) to take on the Katharine Ross chick-in-the-middle role.

The pity of it is that, having established its pistol-toting heroes, the film hasn't much of a clue what to do with them. Scott and his design team have put some effort into conjuring the Hogarthian grime and corruption of London - nobody seems to have taken a bath since the first Jacobite rebellion - but it still has the look of an 18th- century theme-park. For scenes of bustling street life, cue a cockfight, a passing sedan chair and a cast of snaggle-toothed extras. For scenes of beau-monde extravagance, cue swarms of powdered popinjays not seen in such looming close-up since The Draughtsman's Contract. One of the big set-pieces is a society ball at which Macleane must engage the attentions of a woman "as rich as she is horny" - the locution is typical, I'm afraid - though here as elsewhere credulity is affronted by the decision to overlay the action with a thumping techno sound-track. I suppose somebody fancied this to be a daring juxtaposition of styles.

The same desire to be up-to-the-minute even influences the one aspect of costume drama you'd expect any film to get right - the costume. When the society rake Lord Rochester (Alan Cumming, in a supremely annoying performance) appears wearing what is plainly a Philip Treacy hat, you sigh wearily at one more snook being cocked at fuddy-duddy convention. This is arrant modishness. I kept being reminded of another recent debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, in which Guy Ritchie used his training in commercials to deliver a flashy MTV version of a London gangland picture. The difference is that Ritchie had the good sense not to let his adman's instincts run away with him; the farcical plot whipped by so quickly you barely registered the flimsiness of the construction.

Jake Scott, on the other hand, is less adept at concealing his commercial background and indulges the magpie sensibility with some recklessness. He's something of a highwayman himself in the way he steals from other movies; Peter Greenaway is a favourite, though you may spot bits of Frankenstein, Bonnie and Clyde, Tom Jones and The Thirty-Nine Steps. This isn't a crime for a film-maker - even Welles stole - but in the case of Plunkett & Macleane you never sense that anything much underpins the borrowings. Everything has been designed to within an inch of its life, and nothing thought through.

Like his father, Scott exhibits a flair for composition without convincing us that he has the intelligence to back it up. He has been spectacularly let down by the script, which took no fewer than three people to write. "What rhymes with Rebecca?" Macleane asks. "Pecker," replies Plunkett. That's about the standard.

Even if the screenplay had been up to snuff, Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller are not naturally comic talents. The bantam aggression of the one and the sculpted handsomeness of the other have been used to good effect before; here they're required to do little more than look athletic and point their horses the right way. Nothing in the movie is sillier than the scene in which they rob the guests at a wedding banquet and exit to the picturesque accompaniment of fireworks. Disbelief, at first suspended, starts twisting on the gallows long before the end. So much effort for the sake of flash and dash. This thing stands, just about, but it doesn't deliver.

Jake Scott is interviewed on page 12