When Now You See Me, Louis Leterrier’s flashy caper flick about an ill-assorted quartet of elite stage magicians recruited to expose high-stakes corporate wrongdoing, came out in 2013, I gave it a lukewarm review. I was far from the only critic to be less than generous in passing judgment on it. But some movies seem to get better in retrospect, and for me, Now You See Me proved to be one of them. Its visual dazzle and the cleverness of its narrative twists and turns stayed with me far longer than its immediate impressions of lack of depth or implausibility. With the exception of Mark Ruffalo as Dylan Rhodes, the FBI agent obsessed with tracking the elusive Four Horsemen (for reasons rooted in his personal backstory), the characterizations were pretty thin – but they were funny, and I eventually realized that I wouldn’t mind encountering those guys onscreen again.
So when I heard that the inevitable sequel would be coming out this spring, I was surprised to find myself looking forward to it more than I would have imagined the first time around. Having seen it, I am not disappointed – even though Now You See Me 2 shares the weaknesses of its predecessor, and is once again failing to wow the critics. It’s really the perfect summer fluff movie, like a new James Bond or Iron Man outing, and I find myself not at all opposed to seeing it expand into a franchise, if cinematic franchises we must have.
Though Ed Solomon has stayed on as lead screenwriter, a few tonal aspects have changed under the helming of a new director, Jon M. Chu. Most significantly, the ending of the first movie left the audience pondering some ambiguous hints that the Four Horsemen might be on the verge of tapping into some sort of occult energy source: “real magic” as opposed to mere expert prestidigitation and misdirection. Chu apparently chose not to go down that road, although we do learn more about the ancient and mysterious secret society of magicians known as the Eye, which has brought illusionist Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and sleight-of-hand artist Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) together.
Due to the inconvenient pregnancy of Isla Fisher, the only Horsewoman, escape artist Henley Reeves, has been replaced in the sequel by Lizzy Caplan as Lula May, whose specialty is traditional stage-magician schtik like getting sawed in half. Her most notorious trick as of the outset of the movie has been pulling a hat out of a rabbit, which she now finds rather embarrassingly unsophisticated. But she does get some very funny, sarcastic lines – mostly mocking the “mansplaining” attitudes of her new colleagues – and a howler of a scene where, masquerading as a prep chef at a fancy public event, she creates a diversion by pretending to cut off her own hand with an electric knife and flinging the bloody prosthesis across the room.
Fisher was good in the original, but Caplan definitely holds her own and breathes some new life into the character lineup. Eisenberg needs some subtler material for his talents; we get it by now that Danny is a control freak, and don’t need to be reminded quite so often or so explicitly. Franco’s Jack is still the grubby street performer who prefers to keep a low profile (especially considering that he faked his own death in the first movie). And if you think that more is better when it comes to having Harrelson onscreen, you’ll appreciate getting two for the price of one in Now You See Me 2, as he gets to play his own evil twin Chase, grinning maniacally while Merritt mostly sticks to his cynical scowl. Yeah, it’s a cheesy, overdone trope, and still only turns a one-dimensional character into a two-dimensional one. But hey, it’s Woody Harrelson!
The way that the Horsemen’s personalities grate on one another, even while they learn to work absolutely seamlessly when they’re on a job for the Eye, is great fun to watch. Avoiding development of the story in the direction of the metaphysical proves to be a wise decision on Chu’s part, putting the focus squarely on the mind-boggling practical mechanics of the illusions that they manage to pull off, frequently in very public places with minimal control over crowd movement and angles of view. There’s a sequence where they collectively have to steal a McGuffin – a superpowerful privacy-wrecking computer chip that is conveniently the exact size and shape of a playing card – and spirit it past metal detectors without setting them off; it’s some of the most entertaining, complex choreography of miniaturized camerawork that I’ve seen onscreen, ever. Okay, so there’s a bit of CGI assist here and there; but the overall effect is that such a bewilderingly fast, elaborate and precisely executed card trick might really be carried off by highly talented practitioners of the art, without reliance upon supernatural assistance.
Speaking of “real magic,” one of the core jokes of Now You See Me 2 is the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Walter Mabry, a highly unscrupulous, wealthy IT whiz kid who kidnaps the Horsemen and forces them to help steal back his invention (the aforementioned spying chip) from his former business partner. Mabry is a wannabe magician who has embraced a more prosaic version of the Dark Arts, and no noble Harry Potter for sure; it’s clear that he’s relishing the chance to play a real baddie for a change.
Returning to the cast on the villainous side are Michael Caine as the icy-hearted insurance magnate Arthur Tressler and Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bradley, the magic-debunker whom Agent Rhodes put in prison in the first film for his complicity in the death of Rhodes’s father. This time around, Dylan needs Thaddeus’ help, and gets more than one chance to demonstrate his own chops as the scion of a magical family. It’s diverting to see Ruffalo sneer, when we’re so used to watching him be scruffily charming onscreen most of the time. He sneers surprisingly well.
Once again, we have here a lightweight, entertaining vehicle with not much in the way of pretension to be more, other than as arguable allegory for the way that today’s mass media manage to manipulate public perception by making illusions look and feel as real as reality itself. You could even read a bit of Edward Snowdenesque political commentary into the identity-stealing designs of the bad guys, but the whole web of smoke and mirrors that is Now You See Me 2 is too flimsy to sustain much such poking. That’s okay, though. It’s summertime, and the invention of a movie series in which the cartoon superheroes’ superpowers are nothing more than extreme manual dexterity, achieved by constant practice, seems as refreshing to me right now as a long tall glass of iced lemonade.