As Sergio Leone's iconoclastic epics of the 1960s brought the Western resoundingly to life, so debut director Jake Scott's Plunkett and Macleane drags the highwayman saga screaming into the 20th Century.
Cheerfully tossing out words like 'geezer' and assorted four- letter insults, the dark-souled characters of this enormously entertaining romp should make lexicographers cringe. Tough. These geezers will utterly endear themselves tot he cinema-going public. Yet, for all the films contemporary goal posts, it vividly captures the grit and grime of 18th Century England, complete with mud- slapped streets and street-prowling slappers.
Will Plunkett was a real-life highwayman, a former apothecary (who went bankrupt), who lived by his wits and his verve. James Macleane, his partner-in-crime, was a well-bred dandy who squandered his inheritance and his luck on the gambling tables. With Macleane's connections and Plunkett's wiles, they made a formidable duo and embarked on an exceedingly lucrative career of highway robbery ...
As the weaselly Plunkett, Robert Carlyle delivers another memorable turn in hard-hearted villainy (remember Trainspotting? Face?), while Miller, as the foppish Macleane, is provided with an opportunity to display a cheeky charm, until now denied him. Stott, last seen to best effect as Daniel Day-Lewis's d runken crony in The Boxer, makes a vicious and terrifying villain (during a rape scene he mutters to his victim "I like your tears - they excite me"), while Tyler, in the somewhat undernourished role of the Lord Chief Justice's rebellious niece, manages her English vowels (almost) perfectly.
But it is the look of the film that really fires the imagination, although considering that the director is the son of Ridley (Alien, Bladerunner) Scott, it's not surprising that he exhibits some of his father's fine eye for visuals. So, expect a bright future for the most exciting British director since, er, Guy Ritchie.
Crossing the cocky charm of Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with the blood and thunder of Elizabeth, Plunkett and Macleane is exceedingly violent entertainment and will delight those who have visited - and relished - the London Dungeon and Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors.
Wanted! Dead or Alive
Director Jake Scott describes his $15 million debut feature Plunkett and Macleane as an 'anarchic buddy movie about two highwaymen". He's assembled an enticing cast top-lined by Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller and Liv Tyler and, despite the grimy locations, the film has a succulent visual style that seems kind of familiar. Maybe it's in the blood, since Jake is the son of gloss- meister Ridley Scott and nephew of the equally eye-pleasing Tony.
"Because nepotism is so rife in the film industry I lived in terror that my father or uncle would stride on set and there'd be reports that they secretly 'made' my film," laughs the 33-year-old man, a man who isn't one to play his cards close to his chest.
"The one time my father did come on set everybody was terrified because he is a real hard-work ethic Northerner and we didn't want to be caught napping by him!"
Scott Jr's first contribution to the film industry came 23 years ago, wearing a badly designed helmet in his father's sci-fi classic Alien. After art school he plied his way through the industry as a general dogsbody, his first proper directorial job being a commercial for Blaupunkt. He later made a name for himself directing music videos, picking up a pair of MTV awards for his work on REM's traffic-themed Everybody Hurts. So how did he choose the all-important first feature?
"I became involved in Plunkett and Macleane when the first version of the script was circulating," he says. " I was looking specifically for a highway project and was developing one that probably would have ended up as a $1m film shot on Wimbledon Common. When I read the original screenplay by Selwyn Roberts it was a 'zounds!' and could have been a feature-length Blackadder. But it was a damned good story and I thought 'yes!'"
Set in the middle of the 18th Century and based on real-life characters, it's the story of two notorious highwaymen - the rough Plunkett (Carlyle), who the actor describes as a "bag of scum" but with the brains and the know-how to be pretty good at his chosen profession, and the smooth Macleane (Miller), a "gambling, philandering drinker", who has the social connections to make the rich pickings readily available. Together this unlikely couple infiltrate wealthy society, holding up the coaches of the aristocracy and ripping them off at their banquets or in their beds.
Known as The Gentleman Highwayman, Macleane also steals the heart of the niece of one of their victims, the lip-smacking lovely Lady Rebecca Gibson (Tyler).
Film Review met Carlyle and Miller against the appropriate setting of London's Amourers' Hall, surrounded by authentic historical weapons and amour.
"I wanted to do this film because it was subversive," says Robert Carlyle in his broad brogue. 2 The period genre tends to be quite clinical and tends to come from a particular class point of view, so this was an opportunity to take that and subvert it in some way. Jake contacted me about 25 years ago! It feels like a long time ago ... no, actually we first met a year before we started filming!
"Plunkett is a driven character, driven basically just by money," he adds. "He wants to make enough money so he can escape to America, away from the grime and the poverty. It's a very different piece for both Jonny and me because the analogy - if you read this film - is like it's a moving train that you jump on and you jump off at the end. There's not a lot of time for very deep character study. Although it's not all just running around and jumping on horses. We got quite a lot of chances to do some acting!"
For Jonny Lee Miller one of the main attractions was working again with Trainspotting co-star Carlyle, who was the psychotic Begbie to his Connery-fixated Sick Boy.
"I met Jake a long time ago too and when I herd that Bobby was already attached I wanted to do it! But I had to audition a million times! I got lucky. It fitted me to be Macleane," he laughs. "He's a real selfish guy who just wants to have a good time and ends up finding a bit of the hero inside himself.
"We had a real ball making this film although I must say the hanging scene was not great to do. It was the film's nightmare scene. Shot over four days, in a bean field full of extras, we did it in November and it was bloody damned cold. It was all done with a pick-up truck that drove away and stopped in time. There I was, 25 feet up in the air, pretending to choke. That's all I could think of: 'I am pretending to choke'. Then I dropped to the ground in a cloud of smoke which meant you couldn't see anything, couldn't see whether I was dead of alive. I wasn't sure myself which I was."
So, for Miller, what were the benefits of having previously shared screen time with Carlyle?
"It was really good that Bobby and I had worked together before because it cuts that 'getting to know you' stuff. You can save a lot of time and also, for Jake, it being his first feature film, we could help him because we worked with each other easily. Bobby had to slap me about quite a lot which could easily have been difficult with somebody you don't know."
"You have to build up trust," adds Carlyle, grinning like a demon. "Trust is the main thing about actors anywhere in the world. You have to trust each other when you're working close together and we certainly do."
Miller agrees. "Trainspotting was without a doubt the best experience I've had making a film, especially being an Englishman, as I am, and not feeling like an outsider around all those Scots. That says a lot!"
Robert Carlyle came late to acting. Now 36 (and with an OBE!) he was already 28 when, as a talented bit-part actor from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, he was cast by Ken Loach in Riff Raff, a comedy about a Scots labourer seeking work on a London building site. Having worked as a painter (his father's chosen profession), the role must have come as a gift from the gods.
His appearance in Loach's film hit the spot, Carlyle got to go to the Cannes Film Festival and the rest followed fast - TV shows such as The Bill, the unforgettable 'Hillsborough' episode of ITV's Cracker, the BBC TV series Hamish MacBeth and movies like Trainspotting, Carla's Song and, of course, the pants-dropping phenomenon The Full Monty, about which he is now pretty sick of talking.
Yes, taking his clothes off at the end of the film was a terrifying experience, and no, he doesn't want to talk about how he - or his wife Anastasia - feel about him being treated like a sex symbol.
"I don't wish to go around talking about my private life. I still live a couple of miles away from where I was born in Glasgow. I don't want my life to change and I think it only changes if you want it to. Perhaps things are going to happen in Jonny's life and in my life, but I can't see that happening right now. But as Sean Connery once said: 'Never say never'."
Jonny Lee Miller, in contrast, comes from a theatrical family. His grandfather on his mother's side was the late Bernard Lee who made over 100 movies (his most famous role was as the original M in the Bond movies), his great-grandfather was a variety performer and his parents are in film production.
Born in Kingston, London, he says his childhood was spent either in TV studios or theatres. He's had an agent since he was a kid and started acting at nine "in BBC dramas with parts for nine-year-olds ".
At 17 he left school to act full time. His highly varied CV includes theatre (Beautiful Thing, Entertaining Mr Sloane, Our Town) and TV work (Rough Justice, Prime Suspect III, Bad Company), while films he has made - besides the ubiquitous Trainspotting - include the cyberpunk thriller Hackers (where he met his now-estranged wife Angelina Jolie), Regeneration and Julie Christie's object of desire in Afterglow.
He is also a part of a production company called Natural Nylon with fellow actors that include hot British talents Jude Law, Sadie Frost and Ewan McGregor, which is currently in pre-production on a film about the notorious Hellfire Caves.
On reflection, Scott admits that he may have bitten off more than he could chew, picking a historical movie as his first.
"Period films are a very involved process and it was all more than a little bit awesome for me. But we really prepped it well and rehearsed a lot. And with Gary Oldman as executive producer, I had to have his okay on certain things, which was good for me. Ten years ago he and Tim Roth were interested in doing the film and he took a very active interest in the project."
From the start, Scott actually had Carlyle and Miller in mind as the leads for his movie.
"I went up to Scotland to have tea with Bobby while he was shooting Hamish MacBeth. We got along fine and that was it really. I later met Jonny in the States and he seemed a perfect match. And Liv I cast after thinking of various English actresses, because of her modernity and her look that goes against the English Rose. She is a classic beauty but an odd one. Which suits her leading men."
Liv Tyler received much more attention following her photogenic appearance in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty and went on to star in That Thing You Do! and Inventing the Abbotts. She was last seen as Bruce Willis's daughter in the mother of all disaster movies, Armageddon.
The actress found she had something in common with the upper class Lady Rebecca.
"I could really relate to her being in this rut, not wanting to go along with everything that was expected of her," says Tyler. "She ends up with no family except this horrible uncle, Lord Gibson. She wants the freedom to do things that please her and is prepared to fight for it. Her ray of light comes when she is grabbed by this robbery and instead of being scared and terrified, she is completely taken and excited by it. It really changes her life because she sees it as an escape."
As is the current trend amongst American actresses, Tyler had to affect an English accent.
"I acquired my English accent for her from dialogue coach, Barbara Berkery, working on it for about a month beforehand and every day during the shoot. I was never really conscious of my voice of how I speak and had to train my tongue to move differently and drop my jaw."
Of her 'leading men' the lovely Tyler reveals, "Both Jonny and Bobby were great. I didn't have as many scenes with Bobby as I did with Jonny but we all spent a lot of time together. I admit I had to listen very carefully to what Bobby was saying but I understood him most of the time!"
So what was Tyler's lasting memory of working on her first British movie?
"Shooting on location in Prague was amazing," she replies, "and it was such a nice part of making this film. Between takes we'd all be in one trailer, laughing and joking. And all the other cast, as well. Michael Gambon [her screen father] was absolutely brilliant and really funny too. I'm not sure I'd be attracted to dangerous types like Macleane or Plunkett I real life, but they certainly are attractive characters to work with.