Magic as a form of entertainment has produced a large following around the world, comprised of performers and spectators alike. A magician can always be trusted to have something up his sleeve (sometimes literally) that will shock or amaze his audience. For a moment, they may doubt fundamental laws of physics on account of one entertainer’s ingenuity. Depending on the director, a film can view magic in this conventional perception, or as a powerful, at times sinister, force of sorcery. Movies like “The Prestige” and “The Illusionist” take everything their audiences thought they knew about magic and present it with an entirely different perspective.
“Now You See Me” also presents magic with a different perspective, one of a filmmaker desperate to conjure up summer blockbuster bucks. In an overly done spectacle, director Louis Leterrier reveals a display of illusions that try too hard to amaze and consequently portray magic in a hardly magical light.
The movie stars a group of magicians known as the Four Horsemen: the arrogant J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), smart-aleck illusionist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), overly-eager Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and magician’s assistant-turned-pro Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher). After a mysterious hooded figure brings them together, the four become some of the most famous magicians in the world. But their latest trick puts them on the run from the FBI and Interpol after they teleport a spectator from Las Vegas to France to rob a bank, and then give away the money to their audience. FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) can’t seem to lay a hand on the magicians, who always stay one step ahead. All the while, the Four Horsemen continue to give stolen money to their audiences for seemingly no other reason than the difficult economy they constantly rail against.
Eventually, Rhodes and Dray discover the Four Horsemen are performing these feats to gain entry into “The Eye,” a secret society of the world’s most powerful magicians. This logical leap (made with such little evidence, it may be a magic trick in itself) is the result of writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt and editors Robert Leighton and Vincent Tabaillon looking to pull a narrative rabbit out of a muddled hat. Here, the plot shifts abruptly between the Horsemen and their pursuers and continually changes its focus, at times making Rhodes and Dray feel like the main characters. They even get their own romance, albeit an underdeveloped and unnecessary one.
Another unnecessary move on the part of the production team was dragging in Morgan Freeman as magician exposer Thaddeus Bradley and Michael Caine as the Horsemen’s benefactor, Arthur Tressler. As surely as Leterrier wanted them to give the movie name recognition, Caine and Freeman no doubt agreed just for the paycheck. The last time Michael Caine was in a magic-themed movie, he was advising renowned magicians in “The Prestige.” Now, he holds a voodoo doll during a heated confrontation with Freeman in a New Orleans shack. Unfortunately, no vanishing act could save him from this demotion.
As far as the magic goes, well, it doesn’t. Granted, these aren’t traditional magic tricks by any means—unless magicians are used to playing Robin Hood with their audiences. They usually involve technology more than slight of hand and lack the wonder of “real magic.” They are also surrounded by predictable, corny uses of “abracadabra.”
However, like any great magician, “Now You See Me” knows how to pull off a big reveal (by way of a surprise twist ending). This doesn’t make up for the scattered edits and plot focus, but it does make them understandable. Either Leterrier wanted to save his best trick for last, or his writers thought up an amazing twist ending and threw together the rest of the script around it. While it did rescue the film from being terrible, it wasn’t enough to save it from mediocrity.
If being wowed by magic tricks is the goal, save $10 and watch “The Prestige”: a much better film with more advanced illusions and Michael Caine in a relatable role. However, if “Now You See Me’s” final reveal stirs up enough curiosity to outweigh its many faults, it may end up being worth the two-hour wait. Almost.
Stars: ** out of five