“It’s more of the same brand of unbelievable special effects-assisted illusions that the first installment carried, yet executed with enough levity that one remains at least perfunctorily entertained.”
by Ken Bakely
According to the small stack of old ticket stubs lying around on one of the shelves above my desk, I attended a screening of Now You See Me on June 17, 2013. Coincidentally, I saw its sequel precisely three years later to the day. And I think the symmetry is fitting – Jon M. Chu’s Now You See Me 2 is very much a case of the apple not falling very far from the tree. It’s more of the same brand of unbelievable special effects-assisted illusions that the first installment carried, yet executed with enough levity that one remains at least perfunctorily entertained.
Things are a bit more dull this time, with the concept of renegade magicians, a fascinating bit of uncharted territory in the debut installment, now having been thoroughly established. The idea is no longer enough, but Ed Solomon’s screenplay has a bit of trouble reconciling that fact. By the time the third act rolls around, the events have become so blindingly absurd that, much like the individual tricks seen on screen are handled, Chu relies on his own visual flair to mask the paper-thin developments. Does it work for the most part? Well, it depends on how much you liked the first film.
Now You See Me 2, set a year after its predecessor, sees three of the four Horsemen – J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), and Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) – coming out of hiding to expose a massive conspiracy involving a major tech company, where valuable personal data from hundreds of millions of people would be captured and sold. A new illusionist named Lula (Lizzy Caplan), is reluctantly added. In the process, the FBI renews their manhunt for the Horsemen, but Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), still secretly affiliated with the magicians, tries his best to make sure that his colleagues go uncaptured. In the process of escaping arrest, however, the Horsemen are abducted by other forces and find themselves in Macau. There, they are confronted with another series of twists and turns, as old and new enemies appear, intertwining in the most peculiar ways, but all with the common goal of seeing the Horsemen destroyed.
At least Now You See Me 2 carries along the same breezy, cool aesthetic that the inaugural entry established. Exteriors are characterized by neon-colored urban settings (Macau is Las Vegas times infinity), and interiors are chock-full of slick lighting and well-dressed people – obvious attempts to break into the realms of the heist films of yesteryear. Another important element is an ensemble cast of talented individuals, which this movie pulls off in spades, not only with returning actors (Eisenberg, Franco, Harrelson, Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine), but a handful of new faces which slip into the proceedings. The most notable inductee is Daniel Radcliffe, who portrays an eccentric magnate who fakes his death. Radcliffe gets a few fun things to do, and plays opposite Caine in the third act. Additionally, Lizzy Caplan is clearly dedicated to her role Lula, the new Horseman, but the script doesn’t give her much depth beyond the fact that she’s an up-and-coming magician who has the hots for Franco’s character.
But the biggest issue with Now You See Me 2 is one which was seen in the first movie as well, and it’s the amount of wonder that’s lost when watching a magic trick onscreen. While the appearance of David Copperfield’s name as a co-producer seems to be a tacit way of arguing that attempts were made to ground every large trick in some kind of reality, the presentation of many key setpieces are overdirected into oblivion. Take for example a particular headache of a scene, about halfway through the 129 minute movie, in which the Horsemen have to retrieve a small data storage device from a supercomputer system while their every move is being watched by armed guards.
Eventually they resort to attaching the thin chip to a playing card and passing it amongst themselves through slight-of-hand while they are being searched and frisked. While the idea of the sequence itself is rather remarkable, Chu’s execution of it is beyond botched, employing messily cut POV shots of the card as it passes from hand to hand, thrown through the air at high speeds or passed along shoe bottoms. Any hint of amazement is dashed away by the computer-generated camera work, and the lengthy scene falls flat as a pancake, bringing the whole movie to a screeching halt. It’s this lack of awareness that does the most damage to an otherwise conceptually enjoyable film, and so it fails to improve upon the flaws of Now You See Me. For those of us who were charmed the blinding flashiness of the 2013 movie just enough to eke out a recommendation, this is all more of the same. But does that really merit another two hours of your time?