IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 129 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
One year after outwitting the FBI and winning the public’s adulation with their magic spectacles, the remaining members of the Four Horsemen – J. Daniel Atlas, Merritt McKinney, and Jack Wilder – are in hiding, awaiting further instructions from the Eye, the secret society of magicians they’ve been recruited into. FBI agent Dylan Rhodes, and also their boss, eventually assigns them a new mission, exposing corrupt businessman Owen Case, whose new software secretly steals data on its users for Case’s benefit. Illusionist Lula May, whom Atlas encountered in his apartment earlier, is added to the team to replace former member Henley Reeves. The Horsemen infiltrate Case’s company and hijack the launch party for the new software, leading the FBI to their location, but the show is unexpectedly interrupted by a mysterious individual who reveals to the world that Wilder, believed to be dead, is actually alive, and that Rhodes is their mole….
I initially expected the worst. When a sequel to the surprise hit Now You See Me was announced, I was immediately convinced that they would begin it by showing the young Rhodes witnessing his father perform the magic trick that led to his death. And guess what….that’s exactly how the film started. In fact, I predicted quite a bit of would happen, or be revealed [or at least say to myself: “Oh, they’re not going to….oh yes they are”!], throughout Now You See Me 2, which is a bad thing for a movie that’s trying – or rather pretending – to be clever and is all about wrong footing both the characters in it and the viewer. In some ways though, it’s a slight improvement. For a start, it has more of a sense of its own absurdity. The first film climaxed with one of the stupidest twists in recent movie history, one which made absolutely no sense whatsoever and was obviously just put in there to make audiences gasp, with the hope that they wouldn’t think about it afterwards. Therefore it would be appropriate for any sequel to just carry on down the ‘daft’ route, which this one definitely does, though it ends up actually going too far down it. In terms of quality it’s really about the same. In some ways it’s worse – for a start the story does seem to have been thrown together to string together a series of scenes of trickery and Big Reveal moments – but there are moments in it which better anything in the first film and it’s certainly a lot funnier, which works for this material considering how ridiculous much of it is.
There’s far less focus on the police investigation in this one, which is a good idea even if the decision not to bring back the character of French agent Alma Gray leaves a bit of a hole. The bickering between her and Rhodes was a highlight and it would have been interesting to see Alma torn between giving him away and keeping his hidden identity a secret. She’s partially replaced by a female FBI agent but the part is minimal. The other main character to be replaced is Horsewoman Henley Reeves, who is briefly mentioned, her role filled by an illusionist called Lula May. The character’s introduction is a terrible moment as she does tricks in Atlas’s apartment including vanishing into mid air which are impossible to explain, and the movie doesn’t even begin to try. Lizzy Caplan was obviously told to be as irritating as possible in the part, but her tiresome quirkiness and speaking aloud when she should just think pales beside the unfathomable decision to give Meritt McKinney a villainous twin brother called Chase. You could remove the character from the script with little alteration required, while Woody Harrelson quickly becomes hugely annoying in the role with his stupid mannerisms and goofy line delivery.
We soon get a solid robbery sequence which ends with the team tumbling down a chute in New York and finding themselves in Macao. It’s here though where the film really steps up a notch though with the introduction of technology prodigy and vain, petulant super villain Walter Mabry, in a perfectly judged performance by the increasingly impressive Daniel Radcliffe, who is funny but slightly frightening too. And soon after this we get a genuinely tense heist set piece which is superbly handled by director Jon M. Chu, the director of several Step Up films, two Justin Beiber films and G.I. Joe:Retaliation not admittedly being someone who I would have initially picked to fill the shoes of Louis Letterier who at least has a more impressive resume. A section when the four Horsemen are being searched and each have a stolen chip on them at different times is almost bed wettingly suspenseful, cleverly staged and excellently played by the cast too. Now You See Me 2 is often at its best when it’s showing supposed magic which is immediately obvious to the viewer, like a good, despite some annoying shakycam, fight scene where Rhodes bests several villainous henchmen with various tricks which is almost reminiscent of classic Jackie Chan! There’s also a totally cool moment when Atlas changes from outfit to outfit effortlessly as he walks through a series of rooms.
Unfortunately the film threatens to be derailed by its increasingly ridiculous plot revelations, and the Big Finish is so stupid I couldn’t help but laugh out loud in the cinema. The back story of tragedy and vengeance is undoubtedly compelling, but it also detracts from the central theme of magic and those show stopping illusions that we actually came to see, and eventually Chu and his scriptwriter Ed Solomon reveal their game plan – to set things up for a third film. With a subject like this, anything’s possible, but I just hope that some attempt is made to be believable and there’s more of the good old stage magic. There is an initially great section of the Horsemen turning up on the streets in London to peform some impromptu magic acts which is at first genuinely charming and really fun to watch, but it’s ruined when one character does some crazy things with rain amidst lots of CGI special effects in a scene which belongs in something like The Matrix, and it’s hard to believe that legendary illusionist David Copperfield served as production consultant on a film when what explanations we do get for some of the outlandish acts just don’t add up.
It doesn’t help either that some of the characters are significantly different to what they were like in the first film, Jesse Eisenberg especially choosing to perform his part as if he’s playing a totally different person. The constant humour and sarcasm of nearly everyone does help carry the move along though and takes the edge of the lack of thought which seems to have gone into constructing its story. I was able to laugh off the constant gaps in logic because much effort has gone into making the film an entertaining ride, but I was frustrated by the fact that two films in and I still don’t know if we’re being asked to believe in magic or not. There’s a theme of magic vs. science threaded throughout this one, and at times it seems like science is considered to be what it’s all about, but then we have all sorts of illogical nonsense happen which contradicts what seems to be the film’s point of view. You even have things like Wilder teaching Lula how to do a back palm [a card sleight where the card is retained backwards in the hand between the little finger and the index finger, which can be used to effect a vanish], something which is considered to be one of the most basic of magic tricks, yet she’s shown doing lots of amazing and imaginative magic stuff throughout the film!
This sequel has a slightly grittier look to it then the slicker looking original but to be honest there’s not really that much of a difference between Leterrier’s and Chu’s work. Harrelson, Eisenberg and Dave Franco do have some chemistry together but the usually excellent Mark Ruffalo seems to struggle and be in a far more serious film than we one we have. Morgan Freeman plays Morgan Freeman as he has done for many years now, though he’s done it better than here and needs to have a go at playing somebody else. Now You See Me 2 leaves a slight feeling of emptiness and it really is careless and stupid in places, but it still just about works in spite of itself. Not really any more intelligent than a Transformers movie despite its attempts to disguise the fact, it’s still a good ride if you leave your brain at the door. Otherwise you’re be shaking your head constantly and getting multiple headaches from trying to make sense of it all.