Who better to center a glitzy over-the-top heist caper on than masters of misdirection? Director Louis Leterrier offers us a tale of four talented but struggling magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) brought together be forces larger than themselves to become the most sought after magic show in the world. And in their free time they also rob banks.
Those looking for an example of what separates a good movie from a great movie need look no further than the script by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt. That, along with the film’s talent cast and a slick look balancing real sleight of hand with CGI effects, gives Leterrier all the necessary ingredients to offer us what could have been the coolest movie of the Summer. Despite a great set-up, however, Now You See Me eventually runs out of gas with an over-complicated final act, a questionable late twist, and a prolonged epilogue that draws out events well beyond what is necessary. The film’s biggest weakness is not allowing itself to play the magician or be willing to leave the audience with any questions about what they have seen.
After a brief introduction where each of the magicians are tapped by an unknown benefactor, the film picks up a year later in Las Vegas where the foursome astound the world by somehow robbing a bank in Paris during the final act of the night. The FBI are less than amused and send one of their best agents (Mark Ruffalo) along with an agent from Interpol (Mélanie Laurent) to get to the bottom of what really happened. Not respecting magic, and without even an ounce of humility, this will not be the FBI’s last opportunity to be shown up by the Four Horsemen.
The plot is further complicated by the presence of a former magician turned magic debunker (Morgan Freeman) whose actual role with the group is debated more than once of the film’s near two-hour running time. Michael Caine also shows up in supporting role as the group’s benefactor whose trust in his team will be tested as the Horsemen move onto their two remaining grand illusions, both of which include the impossible thefts of millions of dollars.
Freeman’s introduction after nearly a half-hour allows the film to state quite clearly that there’s no real magic going on behind-the-scenes (something the film is unclear about early on). What the Horsemen are doing is with smoke, mirrors, and quite a bit of misdirection. I’m fine with Freeman showing Agent Rhodes (Ruffalo) how the Horseman performed their illusion in Vegas, but the film continues to lift up the curtain (often unnecessarily to explain even the smallest trick which the audience should be able to figure out if they are paying attention).
At one point in the movie Eisenberg’s character remarks that the first rule of magic is to be the smartest man in the room. That kind of hubris and lack of humility is constant in every single character that appears in the film. For the magicians, who know the score going in, it’s certainly an asset, but for the FBI it’s a constant irritant as they are constantly made to look the fool by a group of people they are unwilling to take seriously.
Now You See Me is certainly entertaining, even if the first hour works better than the second. The film’s first illusion is the best of the three. The second has some intriguing elements, including a nice moment of hypnotism allowing the group to make their escape, and the third is fairly simple except for the insanely elaborate final element. The film’s second-half also gives us an extended car chase sequence which needed to be paired down, and, as I’ve mentioned, a twist that complicates the story more than is necessary and forces an extended epilogue that sends the movie out with a whimper instead of a bang.
The Four Horseman are well-chosen. Harrelson steals most of the best lines, but I enjoyed all four actors who each find their own moments to shine. Ruffalo has the most boring role as the straight-laced cop, but Laurent helps liven up the investigation (even if the tease of a possible romantic storyline between the pair is dead on arrival), although she is yet another character in the film whose motives will be called into question. Caine and Freeman aren’t asked to do anything that would cause either of them to break a sweat, but their each of their characters has an important role to play before all is said and done. When the curtain comes down Now You See Me is a mostly-satisfying bit of movie magic that might have been more in the hands of a better magician.