How many stage magic heist films do we need?
When Now You See Me was released back in 2013, the conceit at least seemed original: a quartet of Robin Hood magicians, known as the Four Horsemen, stage (literally) a series of audacious robberies targeted at the rich and unethical.
Slick and self-satisfied, and directed by Louis Leterrier, the film offered up a lot of razzle dazzle but stacked the deck unforgivably in its favor — think Magician: Impossible. If you’re going to goad your audience to figure out how your heroes are pulling off their tricks, you owe it to them to keep things within the realm of possibility.
It was, in a word, hokum.
The not particularly long or awaited sequel, Now You See Me 2, shifts the focus away from incredible stage acts and towards semi-credible globe-hopping (provided you don’t know London well enough to recognize the entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel’s been slapped with a Manhattan subway sign).
Coming out of hiding for their first show in a year, illusionist Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), card expert Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), and newcomer Lula May (Lizzy Kaplan) find themselves exposed, along with their handler FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), by a mysterious new foe. Before you can say, “Hey presto, now you’re in Macau”, the Horsemen find themselves under the thumb of Walter Mabry (beardy Daniel Radcliffe), a cheerily sociopathic tech magnate who wants them to bring him a piece of seemingly all-powerful encryption-breaking technology.
What follows is Now You See Me 2‘s best sequence, in which the team transfer the aforementioned MacGuffin from one to another during a security sweep with astonishing expertise — fortunately their skill-sets are more or less interchangeable at this point. Director Jon M. Chu deftly follows the card through the air, to the backs of hands, down sleeves and away from questing hands. There’s also a marketplace fight involving cloth and mirrors in which Ruffalo gets to show off his action chops; albeit with more on a focus on agility than combat.
There’s also, utterly incidentally, one very lovely shot of an industrial safe opening on a silty riverbed. It looks more like something out of Hou Hsia-Hsien’s gorgeous, if soporific, The Assassin than anything you might expect from the Luc Besson stable.
Even so, Now You See Me 2 has so many tricks up its sleeve, you lose sight of what’s at stake. It’s difficult to feel too invested when you know there’s another reveal just around the corner — and for all that, the ending is far too neatly telegraphed. The film’s biggest twist, as with its predecessor, involves character motivation and, as with its predecessor, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you stop to think about it.
Off the back of his wildly unfocused turn in Batman V Superman, a still-shorn Eisenberg gives a low energy performance that smacks of contractual obligation. As the solitary female Horseman — Isla Fisher was unable to return due to pregnancy and Melanie Laurent’s Interpol character seems to have been Brexit’d — Kaplan is engagingly quirky; though Ed Solomon’s screenplay covers giving her relatively little to do by having her pass comment on the team’s sexism. The film gets some mileage out of Dave Franco’s perfect smile and Harrelson gets a new set of pearly whites and some goofy hair as Merritt’s deeply treacherous, incredibly camp brother. Morgan Freeman brings his customary twinkle as returning baddie Thaddeus Bradley, but Michael Caine looks sadly tired.
Breezy capering is the order of the day, even if its mostly driven by one character or anothers’ desire for revenge. Now You See Me 2 is still hokum, and rarely plausible with it, but at least this installment plays fair where it counts.