I like the idea of the Now You See Me movies: magicians use tricks to pull of heists. That’s a neat concept. But somewhere along the way, someone said, “What if the magic the magicians used was supernatural even though these characters are ostensibly human beings with no supernatural powers?” And that’s where it all went to hell because now it’s the adventures of four people who can do pretty much anything, and without limitations, they’re gods, which leaves the audience wondering what, if anything, provides conflict for the protagonists? Jon M. Chu’s Now You See Me 2 suffers from the same problem as the original, and while it does have some success at backing its heroes into a corner, it ultimately becomes far too convoluted and self-satisfied to be an even marginally delightful picture.
The horsemen have been keeping quiet lately, but J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is itching to become the leader of the magical band of thieves. However, the mysterious leader of the organization, The Eye, tells him to be patient and leave Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) in charge. Atlas and his fellow members of The Four Horsemen, mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), the presumed dead Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), and newcomer Lula (Lizzy Caplan), are eventually recruited to take down a tech company, but end up becoming pawns of the powerful tech genius Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), who wants them to steal a piece of revolutionary technology. Reluctantly forced into service, the Four Horsemen must figure out how to turn the tables while Rhodes must work with his old nemesis, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman).
If the Now You See Me movies were even half as clever as they thought they were, they would be tremendous. There’s a thrill in seeing how an elaborate trick is performed, but the tricks of the trade in NYSM 2 are plot shortcuts, CGI, and all-powerful magic that no person could conceivably perform. If all it takes for Merritt to hypnotize someone is to get in close and use alliteration, then A) it’s not a very cinematic superpower; and B) it’s far too powerful because it means he can hypnotize anyone.
The watchword of Now You See Me 2 seems to be “speed”, not in service of the magician’s best friend, distraction, but to just stop the audience from being bored. Unfortunately, fatigue quickly sets in because we just don’t care about these characters. They’re walking, smarmy set pieces. They don’t have hopes or dreams or anything to really flesh them out. They’re “talented” magicians, and we’re supposed to like them because they take from the rich and give to the poor. That’s a nice ethos, but even Robin Hood had a personality, and with the exception of Caplan, who gives her character a bright, quirky energy, the leads in Now You See Me fall short.
As long as Now You See Me carries the magician-thieves premise, it will be a promising series, and as long as it continues to coast on its characters being able to do the impossible, it will fall short of that promise. Magic is the art of the incredible, but there must be something credible in the actions. Now You See Me 2 may marvel at its characters tossing around a playing card like Ricky Jay on steroids, but it’s a bland, listless scene that marks one of the major set pieces of the movie. If Now You See Me continues (and Chu has already signed on for a third installment), it must face the paradox of becoming credible by showing the credibility in its incredible acts. Otherwise, the audience just feels tricked.