Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Daniel Radcliffe
Duration: 129 minutes
Release Date: July 4th
Stopping anyone on the street, Billy Eichner-style, and asking them to come up with a title for the sequel to 2013’s magic heist movie Now You See Me, could yield some fun results. How about, ‘Now You Don’t?’ ‘Now 2 See Me?’ ‘Now You See Me, Too?’ ‘Now You See Us?’ Instead, the lazy titling of Now You See Me 2 is the first symptom that no great creative effort has been expended on this needless sequel, and we subsequently see plenty more to confirm this.
Daniel (Eisenberg), Jack (Franco) and Merritt (Harrelson), a band of magicians collectively known as The Horsemen are on the run (on foot, not on horseback; not even once!) following the events of the first movie, which are outlined in a flashy opening diorama to establish the status quo for viewers who don’t know, don’t remember or don’t care. Following the departure of the fourth member of the troupe, a new ‘girl Horseman,’ Lula (Caplan), is drafted to join them by their leader, Dylan (Ruffalo). Much has been made of the fact that Caplan is the only female face in this film’s large ensemble cast, but I have a theory about this: It’s that, girls are cool, and magic is for dorks.
Even Daniel Radcliffe, who represents magic on-screen for an entire generation of movie-goers – hell, who represents dorks for many others – thinks the same. His character, tech whiz-kid Walter Mabry, rejects the Horseman’s brand of trickery for ‘real magic; science!’ Mabry has developed a microchip, now in the hands of his former business partner, with the potential to hack into and control every electronic device in the world. (‘Now They See Me.’ There’s another potential title.) Mabry wants the Horsemen to steal the chip back, promising them a wealthy, non-fugitive lifestyle in return. The group resolve instead to expose this system of digital surveillance to the world, through magic tricks of course, although the reappearance of ‘magic debunker’ Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) and businessman Arthur Tressler (Caine) from Now You See Me the first, complicates matters.
Before I go any further, I need to tell you something. Woody Harrelson plays his own literal evil twin in this movie. ‘Chase’ has curly hair transplants and talks in a camp, affected drawl. This is a good litmus test to how you’d fare with Now You See Me 2 overall. If you’re into seeing Woody Harrelson fight his inner demons with hypnosis and by flipping playing cards, you may like this film. If you think this sounds unbelievably silly, you likely will think that about every other element in play.
Evil twins and all, genre tropes for movies about magicians are in short supply, and yet, rather than pull something new out of the hat, this film plays on all of them. Michael Caine himself may be one of those tropes, along with the tragic loss of someone beloved by a magician by drowning due to the failure of a magic trick. (Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, anyone?) As antagonists, Caine and Radcliffe – and evil twin Harrelson – are drawn with the broad strokes of a boardwalk caricature artist: not scary, not real, but kind of fun anyway. ‘This is the most expensive champagne on earth,’ boasts Tressler, serving it in crystal glasses with gold rims while wearing a jacket with fur lapels. ‘It cost $1.2 million.’
This reliance on easily-established clichés runs throughout the film, and it’s occasionally fun, but it’s weak. Our protagonists phone it in, largely defined by their tricks rather than their personalities. There are far too many unnecessary twists, and details that feel as if they were supposed to go somewhere but got dropped in a second draft, fooling the audience into thinking something complex and astonishing is happening when really, it’s muddled misdirection. A nice motif of eyes, of surveillance, is introduced, but when what we are watching closely is CGI card tricks and strobe lights, is it worth watching at all?
As with any magic act, your enjoyment of Now You See Me 2 relies on your ability to suspend disbelief. It’s a fun, easy distraction, initially intriguing, but there’s nothing of lasting substance behind the trick. It’s not bad, but it’s not good, and it’s not really needed, a 21st century symptom of excess franchising. Did we need more of these? Maybe I’m underestimating the demand for a Fast and the Furious series, but with magicians; an Ocean’s 11 franchise, but featuring the token female character cutting off her own arm to distract bad guys; or literally anything in which Woody Harrelson plays his own evil twin. Maybe this is for you.