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Film / Plunkett & Macleane

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Buggers with style.

Plunkett & Macleane is a historical action comedy, released in 1999. The titular characters are based very, very loosely on real life highway men William Plunkett and James Macleane. The story itself? Pretty much nothing to do with them.

Set in 1748, when highwaymen are plaguing the wealthy along England's roads, the film a revolves around the criminal partnership of the titular characters. Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller) witnesses a robbery gone wrong when Plunkett's young partner is killed by Thief Taker General Chance. Desperate to clear his debts, Macleane attempts to retrieve a valuable ruby the deceased partner swallowed before his death. Unfortunately at the cemetery he's confronted at gunpoint by Plunkett (Robert Carlyle). Things take a bad turn for both parties when Chances men arrive to arrest them forcing Plunkett to swallow the ruby before their capture.

Realising Macleane's higher social status will allow him the means to bribe them both out of prison with the jewel, Plunkett proposes a new partnership. Macleane begins living among the rich, gaining inside knowledge so Plunkett can figure out how to rob them blind. Beginning a lucrative and highly risky business venture together. As their notoriety spreads, General Chance grows more eager to catch them in the act and Macleane begins to complicate things further by falling for one Lady Rebecca Gibson (Liv Tyler).

As a whole the film is your classic tale of unlikely partners becoming friends that just happen to be criminals in the 18th century. Expect entertainment and humour to take precedent over strict historical accuracy.

Tropes Used:

  • Absurdly-Spacious Sewer: Used to escape on several occassions by the highwaymen.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Lady Rebecca, of course. One woman in the middle of being robbed no less, was enjoying things a little too much...
  • Always Save the Girl: Subverted. Macleane goes back for Rebecca, despite Plunkett's warnings its a trap. In the end it gets him arrested and convicted for murder.
  • Anachronism Stew: Possibly one of the least noticeable anachronisms but when Lady Gibson comments on General Chance having halitosis, the script fails because halitosis was actually a term made up in 1921 by the manufacturers of Listerine.
  • Anti Heroes: Plunkett & Macleane, despite being thieves come off very heroic, especially given the evil Chance is hunting them and the people they steal from are mostly elitist snobs.
  • Asshole Victim: Rooting for the two rather unscrupulous highwaymen — other than the fact that they both turn out to be not quite so unscrupulous after all — is certainly made a lot easier by the fact that the people who they steal from are pretty much uniformly complete and utter dickwads.
  • Bad Boss: Other than Eddie, Chance has utter contempt for his own men, belittling, beating, and even trying to outright kill them when no longer pleased with their poor performance.
    Chance: I pay you... yet you do nothing.
  • Becoming the Mask: Macleane's love of excess and playing the rich boy start to get the better of him.
  • Big Bad: Thief Taker General Chance.
  • Big Damn Hero: Plunkett has a glorious example of this.
  • Black Comedy: Along side the light humoured stuff, there's some pretty grim humour too.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Plunkett used to be an apothecary. Comes in handy when having to get smoke grenades or cure pox.
  • Church Militant: Chance is a humourless religious zealot who sees nothing wrong with enforcing peace and policing the population with extreme, heavy-handed means.
  • Dances and Balls: A brief but no less elaborate ball is held midway through the movie.
  • The Dandy: Given the setting, every man that can afford it. However, two stand out more than the others.
    • Rochester, who is a fashion- and fun-loving guy, with seemingly Unlimited Wardrobe at his disposal.
    • Macleane naturally gravitates toward this whenever he gets his hands on any sort of money, and part of his constant financial ruin comes from this.
  • Defiant to the End: Despite the fact Macleane is about to be wrongly sentenced to death for murder, he regrets only one thing. And lets the Lords, Ladies and Judge watching know it.
    Macleane: I am guilty of one thing for which I am heartily sorry. Namely cheating my friend and fellow highwayman. A man who has more nobility of soul, in his little finger, than any of you bloated bastards have in your entire bodies.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Rochester is the resident bisexual and hedonist. Though he's only really "depraved" due to helping the main protagonists.
  • Duel to the Death: In the form of 'Pistols at Dawn' subverted in that neither Chance nor Plunkett die. Chance cheats to avoid death whilst Plunkett is only wounded.
  • The Dung Ages: The peasantry are shown to live in some pretty flithy and harsh conditions, which is likely accurate for the very poor of the time. In deliberate contrast to the nobility and filthy rich.
  • Eye Scream: Plunkett's dying partner falls victim to this, courtesy of Chance.
  • Fatal Flaw: Macleane loves women and gambling. You'll never guess what gets him in trouble.
  • A Fool and His New Money Are Soon Parted: Macleane is already destitute at the start of the story and proceeds to waste in gambling whatever money he is ever given through the story. A throwaway line by Rochester implies he was in debtors' prison for the second time. He has a fall-out with Plunkett in the end when it is revealed he also gambled away their savings for starting new lives in America.
  • Force Feeding: Chance forces a golden coin into the mouth of one of his own men and makes him swallow, after he decided to question his boss work plan right in the middle of the payday.
  • Forced to Watch: As if we didn't have enough motivation to hate Chance, he forces Rebecca to watch as Macleane is hanged.
    Chance: Open your eyes!
  • The Gambling Addict: Macleane is eager to play just about any game, be it cards, roulette or even betting on cockfights. We never see him win anything, yet he just can't stop himself. There is no amount of money that he wouldn't be able to squander on his uncontrollable addiction.
  • Girly Girl with a Tomboy Streak: Lady Rebecca Gibson is a Proper Lady that also enjoys target shooting, horseback riding and being fiercely independent.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Lady Rebecca Gibson is a female example. She is described by Rochester to be "very choice, very choosy" when it comes to her long line of unsuccessful suitors, sending one off in the same scene with a particularly barbed remark. Though unheard by the audience, the reaction of the suitor indicates the remark was particularly vicious, though probably deserved.
    • Even with the man she likes, her initial flirting has a particularly snarky and mischievous tone.
    Lady Rebecca: (to Macleane) You are not a gentleman.
    Macleane: I'm sorry?
    Lady Rebecca: No gentleman would stare at a lady like that in public.
    Macleane: I do beg your pardon. Captain James Macleane, at your service.
    Lady Rebecca: Oh, so you are a gentleman?
    Macleane: Yes.
    Lady Rebecca: What a shame.
  • Good-Times Montage: The duo rack up a shitload of heists and money. Unfortunately a darker undercurrent begins to show as Macleane's pissing it all away on gambling.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: It is the 18th Century nobels being robbed after all.
  • Guns Akimbo: Hell yes. Complete with Badass posing.
  • Hanging Around: The finale has Will Plunkett saving James Macleane from the gallows in the biggest Big Damn Heroes moment of the movie.
  • The Highwaymen
  • Historical Domain Character: Sort of. Rochester is presumably a reference to John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who was likewise promiscuous, although that Rochester lived around a century before the setting of the film. Likewise, Plunkett and Macleane themselves are inspired, if loosely, by actual highwaymen.
  • Honor Among Thieves: Plunkett swears revenge for his partners death early on and then saves Macleane despite him bringing his hanging on himself and spending all their money. Macleane doesn't share this this sentiment initially but comes to respect Will and regret his selfish actions later on. Even coming back with Rebecca in the tunnels to save Plunkett from Chance's men.
  • Honor Before Reason: Plunkett when he allows Chance his shot in a duel. Despite having every right to deny him, since the general cheated, simply to show him he was the better man. In fact Plunkett's sense of honor causes the above duel in the first place.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: Chance acts this way towards Rebecca, who is digusted by his very presence.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Macleane is but a beggar when we met him for the first time, but he does have enough pedigree to pass himself as a gentleman. It's not entire clear if he has any sort of title to his name (he used to be a captain, presumably the army one), but one of his early conversations with Rochester implies he might have squandered his estate in the past.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Plunkett. Especially when combined with his trademark crouch dodge. At least when you consider he's using smooth-bore guns.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: Chance is very fond of this.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Chance is killed with a bullet through the eye whilst trying to gouge out someone else's again. Justified in that Plunkett lured him into the situation and probably shot him there in retribution for his ex-partner.
  • Loveable Rogue: Macleane. He's a bit of dick with a gambling problem but he still comes off as likeable.
  • Lovable Sex Maniac: Rochester
    Macleane: Still swinging both ways, Rochester?
    Rochester: Jamie, I swing every way.
  • Moe Greene Special: How Plunkett finally takes Chance down.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Macleane obviously. However Plunkett has a different appeal. Rochester calls him a "delicious bit of rough," and after Plunkett's honourable performance during the duel with Chance, news of his bravery (and his visible injury) lead to some marked interest from a few of the ladies in Macleane's acquaintance.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Macleane. He loves gambling, fashion and women (and sex), but he's still a surprisingly straight-laced for a dandy with more money than sense.
  • Name and Name
  • Near-Rape Experience: And the only reason why Chance doesn't turn it into a full-blown rape is because he doesn't consider Rebecca broken enough yet.
    I like your tears. They excite me. I hope you shed many more.
  • Playing Possum: Used to lethal effect by Plunkett. Who kills Chance when he lets down his guard to try and torture him.
  • Pocket Protector: An odd villainous example Chance survives the duel with Plunkett because he kept a bible over his heart and even declaring Thank God despite clearly being a cowardly cheat.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner:
    Chance: Does that hurt?
    Plunkett: *Grinning* Only when I laugh. *BANG!*
  • Revenge: Plunkett swears this on Chance.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Invoked, discussed and exploited. As far as Plunkett is concerned, all they need to do is find exactly this kind of people - for which Macleane's pedigree comes into play - and then just rob them blind. Unfortunately for them, that's also part of Macleane's personality.
  • Robbing the Dead: James tries this to obtain the ruby at the cemetary, Will's having none of it.
  • Royal Brat: A lot of the rich victims are nothing more than vain spoilt brats.
  • Sadist: Chance is relishing in suffering of others, especially when they are women, but he isn't picky about who he is currently hurting.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: Downplayed. While the film keeps the whimsical vibe for the whole duration, the final act gets far darker, while the nature of humour also changes the tone.
  • Shoot the Rope: How Plunkett saves his partner Macleane from hanging during the finale.
  • Snobby Hobbies: Macleane loves playing cards, exquisite clothes, playing cards, fine dining and wine, dancing, romancing and playing some more cards - and he is a terrible player. He is introduced to the audience while doing time in debtors' prison. Plunkett only ever gets involved with him, because Captain James Macleane can pass himself off as a gentleman, which is handy for their highwaymen gig and opens even more doors. Once the money starts rolling, Macleane turns into a full-blown Upper-Class Twit whenever not on the job and what's not wasted on gambling, he spends on newest fashion.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Plunkett has elements of this. He sure has no qualms about killing people.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Despite being ostensibly a period piece, the music during a ballroom dance scene is something you'd expect in a late 90s dance club - and it's explicitly the soundtrack, rather than the tune the characters are dancing to in-universe, so their movement doesn't exactly match the rhythm, either.
  • Sword Cane: Rochester's cane has a hidden blade inside of it.
  • Ten Paces and Turn: After Plunkett has a (completely random) scuffle with Chance, the latter demands satisfaction. The scene cuts to the duel the next morning, with both parties preparing their pistols.
  • Too Important to Walk: Given the story is set during the height of the sedan chair fashion in Europe, it's only fitting for all the filthy rich to be carried around in them - Rochester included.
  • Tuckerization: Dixon and Winterburne are the names of two players - Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn - for the English football team Arsenal during the late 1980s/early 1990s, and part of Arsenal's famous "back four".
  • "Wanted!" Poster: As their exploits continue, the wanted poster keeps evolving: first just mentioning the duo as wanted men, then steadily increasing the prize for their capture or even providing information on their whereabouts.
  • Working-Class Hero: In contrast to Macleane's Upper-Class Twit, Plunkett is a no-nonsense, serious and goal-focused man with no vices of any kind, but also no title and hard working for the most of his life. He also lacks any pretense of remorse or hiding behind morality when it comes to the life of a highwayman. Oh, and he's constantly baffled by the foppish fashion.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: While Plunkett is indeed wounded during the finale, it's nothing serious. He plays up how bad it is, solely to get a drop on the unsuspecting Chance, knowing the man would never pass a chance to torment someone in already bad shape.