'Plunkett' mixes lavish costumes & MTV

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science

Ol' Mackie is back.

Bobby Darin fans (you know who you are) will get the reference, but for the rest of us it's enough to know that the romantic outlaw rides again. Based on the same historical figure that inspired the gentleman thief MacHeath in Bertolt Brecht's agitprop theater musical, "Threepenny Opera," and Darin's hit song "Mack the Knife," James Maclaine now gallops onto the big screen.

This time, the vehicle is a cross between a faithful costume drama and MTV. Set to pounding and occasionally haunting modern music, "Plunkett & Macleane" unfolds across an 18th-century landscape as seen through the eyes of a director of late-20th-century TV commercials and rock videos.

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The result is a high-class romp of utterly present-day faces (Liv Tyler and Alan Cumming) that are laced into lavish costumes and riding astride frothing steeds while fighting a corrupt government and morally bankrupt leaders. Think "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" meets "Shakespeare in Love" meets "Smashing Pumpkins."

First-time director Jake Scott has said that he was attracted to the material because it was "the English equivalent of the Wild West outlaws." The film toys with every notion of period filmmaking and sets it on its ear.

"The entire look is rococo," says Mr. Cumming, one of the film's stars, who brings to life the foppish, decadent Lord Rochester. Cumming says that the look of the film echoes the film's themes: The characters are "all cocking a snook at authority," he says, meaning that the irreverence evident in the period costumes, makeup, and set decoration echoes the Gentlemen Highwayman's own attitude toward law and order.

"Plunkett" was filmed in the Czech Republic and London, according to the producer, "for both financial and creative reasons." The director has noted that he felt the unfamiliar locations added to the offbeat look he wanted.

The real James Maclaine was the son of a Scottish minister who took up a seemingly glamorous life of crime with his partner, an apothecary named Plunkett. After numerous robbery attempts, one of which nearly ended the life of a prominent British politician in 1749, Maclaine established himself as "The Gentleman Highwayman" and began a lavish life in the midst of London.

He was eventually tripped up by his own bravado after he relieved a well-known lord of a distinctive coat, which proved impossible to resell. The historical Plunkett disappeared, leaving his more refined partner to stand trial alone. As in life, in the movie his trial becomes the social event of the season.

These Robin Hood-like characters are classic romantic roles, characters who thumb their nose at convention, Cumming says.

"You see these characters throughout classical literature," says the Scottish actor, who raised his profile in the US with a critically praised performance in last season's Tony Award-winning revival of "Cabaret."

"Young adults like to see other people do the things they'd like to do, but don't, for whatever reason," he says.

As for his own role, Cumming suggests that the Scarlet Pimpernel-esque persona - a character who reveals his true depth as a person only when the moment demands it - appeals to many.

"People like to think that at the end of the day, there's more to them than their costumes and hair," he says.

"All these characters are bigger than life...." This film, like any good retelling of a classic story, updates the ideas while remaining faithful to the spirit of a time.

"It's completely contemporary," Cumming adds, "but at the same time, completely historical."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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