There’s a problem at the heart of the Now You See Me movies that’s at the heart of a lot of modern blockbusters, even if it’s rarely so easy to pinpoint. Both 2013’s Now You See Me and this new sequel follow The Horsemen, the world’s greatest magicians — they’re also wanted criminals and Robin Hood-like political terrorists, but we’ll get to that that — as they travel the world performing tremendous feats of magic. Trouble is, neither movie seems to understand what makes magic work.
For magicians to pull off tricks — sorry, illusions — it has to feel as if they’re bending the laws of the universe. But in the CGI-heavy world of these movies, anything can happen. One character stops the rain and then vanishes into a puddle of water. Another performs a guillotine trick in which she keeps talking up to the moment the blade takes off her head. How? It seems impossible, and not in the “How’d they do that?” sense but in the “I think I just got cheated” sense.
When handled carelessly or relied on too much, CGI has made movies feel intangible, creating worlds where anything can happen and yet nothing feels incredible. Any real entertainment has to be found elsewhere in the film.
Like its predecessor, Now You See Me 2 at least has an appealing — and packed — cast. Mark Ruffalo returns as Dylan, an FBI agent revealed at the end of the first film to be one of the masterminds who first brought the Horsemen together. As the film opens, everyone’s laying low as they await the next mission. Still sporting a hoodie no matter what the weather, Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) has grown impatient while Jack (Woody Harrelson) and Merritt (Dave Franco) try to school each other in their areas of expertise (hypnotism and card throwing, respectively). Meanwhile, newcomer Lula (Lizzy Caplan) sneaks her way into the slot vacated by Henley, played in an absent Isla Fisher.
When a software billionaire with no respect for privacy decides to do a high-profile product launch, the Horsemen leap into action, only to watch as their plan goes awry and their escape route leads them not to the back of a getaway truck but to a Chinese restaurant — in Macau. There Walter Mabry, a different sort of evil billionaire (played by Daniel Radcliffe, making a return to the world of magic, sort of), enlists them to perform a high-tech theft. Also in the picture once again: Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine as the Horsemen’s antagonists.
Scripted by Men in Black‘s Ed Solomon (who co-wrote the first film), and directed by Jon M. Chu, Now You See Me 2 is, like its predecessor, about half as smart as it thinks it is and twice as convoluted as it needs to be. When the final act reveals the plan behind the plan, it seems more implausible than clever. (David Mamet’s House of Games this is not.)
But there are compensations: Chu, a veteran of the Step Up films, has fun in the action sequences, particularly one in which Dylan does his best to avoid fighting a bunch of martial arts-savvy henchmen. The cast seems to be having fun, too, with Eisenberg’s stone-faced surliness playing nicely off the just-shy-of-over-the-top performances from everyone else. (Then again, a film that’s not afraid to introduce an evil twin as a supporting character probably doesn’t know the meaning of over-the-top.) It’s fast-paced and colorful and — and this helps a lot — its heart’s in the right place. Even when it doesn’t work — which is often, particularly in those annoying special effects-driven set pieces — it’s good-natured, imagining a world in which witty magicians unite to take down sleazy corporate bad guys. It’s dumb, in other words, but the sort of dumb that goes down easy in the middle of summer, even if it never feels the least bit magical.