‘Now You See Me,’ now you don’t: Sequel has too much up its sleeve

July 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Hollywood’s Horsemen are back, but how about the magic?

Three years ago, “Now You See Me” pulled a rabbit out of its hat to become a surprise hit — made for just $75 million but grossing $352 million worldwide — as it introduced a group of Robin Hood magicians who pulled off elaborate bank heists and gave the money to their live TV audience.

Yours truly was riveted by the charming cast, original premise and irresistible magic tricks for the majority of the flick, only to discover the script had little up its sleeve with its big ultimate twist.

Now, the gang is back in “Now You See Me 2,” including ringleader Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), pickpocket and card-flinger Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and an escape artist’s son Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) who now works for the FBI.

At the outset of the film, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) has left the group, requiring the group to find a new member in the form of wisecracking prankster Lula (Lizzy Caplan). Former illusionist Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) is still in jail after his antics in the first installment, his character patterned after Val Valentino, who exposed tricks on TV’s “Magic’s Biggest Secrets: Finally Revealed” (1997).

While the magicians have been in hiding since their latest score, they’re pulled out of the shadows by a bratty tech wizard (Daniel Radcliffe), who recruits them to steal an all-powerful computer chip in an attempt to get even with his former business partner and please his conniving father (Michael Caine).

As with the last installment, the intensely charming cast is the best thing the movie has going for it.

Jesse Eisenberg has found a comfortable home in the role of Danny Ocean — err, umm Atlas.

Mark Ruffalo remains one of the most underrated and talented actors we have going today, from “The Kids Are All Right” (2010) to “The Avengers” (2012), “Foxcatcher” (2014) to “Spotlight” (2015).

Dave Franco looks impossibly similar to brother James Franco — the similarities are indeed eerie — and recently proved on “The Tonight Show” that he actually can fling cards like flying daggers.

And while we miss Isla Fisher (“Wedding Crashers”), the snappy Lizzy Caplan (“Cloverfield”) is a cool addition, introduced with a Mouse Trap domino “suicide” that recalls “Harold and Maude” (1971).

Still, viewers will feel bad for Woody Harrelson, who is arguably the most talented of the bunch (“Cheers,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” “No Country For Old Men,” “True Detective”), but is given the ridiculous task of playing both his original role and the role of his zany evil twin — both hypnotists.

This decision is the first of many choices that make us wonder what the filmmakers were thinking.

While the caper moves fairly well and is certainly never boring, the script’s compounding plot twists become increasingly unbelievable. Even Morgan Freeman’s angelic voice can’t make us buy them.

For specific examples, let’s consider the movie’s three biggest set pieces:

1. Unlike Brian DePalma’s brilliant breach of CIA headquarters in “Mission Impossible” (1996) or Steven Soderbergh’s dazzling Las Vegas casino heist in “Oceans Eleven” (2001), the big computer-chip heist never quite feels plausible in “Now You See Me 2.” After passing through a metal detector, the suspicious characters are allowed to roam around the chamber without hardly any supervision.

Beyond that, the action sequence relies too heavily on characters flinging around CGI playing cards, catching the Ace of Spades and quickly hiding it from the inspectors. Who knew that each Horseman was such a master at flinging cards? And who knew these inspectors were so dumb as to not notice it?

2. During the film’s “All is Lost” moment, Ruffalo’s character faces his most dangerous moment in the film. Getting mentally in touch with his “escape artist” father, he has an epiphany as to solving the situation. This is cool in theory, but practically, it requires way too much outside-the-box thinking for a character in such mortal duress. In reality, he’d be panicking too much to make such a mental leap.

3. Finally, during the film’s elaborate airplane finale, we never quite feel like our heroes are in danger. Perhaps this is because the movie has already established an expectation that “nothing is as it seems.” We don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that plenty of twists and turns await.

The endless twists feel like a case of perfectly capable filmmakers trying a little too hard. While the original film was directed by Louis Leterrier (“Transporter”) and co-written by Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”), Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans”) and Edward Ricourt (“Jessica Jones”), this time we get Solomon as the sole credited screenwriter under the direction of Jon M. Chu (“G.I. Joe: Retaliation”).

It would have been nice if the filmmakers took their own advice. There’s a key scene where Eisenberg quotes his favorite magician, saying, “A magician’s greatest strength is an empty fist.” That is to say, the ability to convince a crowd that something is inside when really there is nothing.

While the first film ultimately had nothing at the center, it at least tricked us into thinking there was something there for the majority of its runtime. The sequel has even less at its center, but this time we’re aware of its emptiness from the start, especially after a ludicrous hypnotic transport to China.

Yes, really.

Let’s face it, when everything is a fake-out, nothing carries any weight.

When you twist yourself into knots, the story ultimately feels hollow.

True magic requires sleight of hand, not a sledgehammer.

So put on your Gallagher poncho; the twists are about to get messy.

Yes, it is possible for a magician to have too many tricks up his sleeve.

2-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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