Who would have thought that 2013’s “Now You See Me,” an action comedy featuring magicians who use their skills for justice, would become a surprise summer hit? But, here we are with the sequel, “Now You See Me 2,” with a cast even more star-stuffed than the original, with director Jon M. Chu taking the reins from Louis Leterrier.
The notorious rogue magicians The Horsemen have been sent underground, into hiding after the events of their last trick, where they robbed an insurance company for revenge, and set up magician Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) to take the fall. Though they’ve scattered to the wind, secret Horseman and FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) brings the group back together to expose a tech company’s plan to sell customer data and violate privacy.
The tech company is a red herring, in screenwriting parlance, or a misdirection as the magicians would say. They aren’t the real villains of the film. The bad guys are personally connected to The Horsemen’s last trick, and are seeking retribution of their own. The magicians — Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), and newest lady Horseman Lula (Lizzy Caplan) — are whisked away to Macau, where they are pressed into helping a young, mysterious scientist/tech guru, Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). He’s seeking a microchip that will let him control markets, spy on citizens and essentially rule the world.
Because this is a movie about magic, there are whiplash-inducing twists and turns in the story, where one thing is revealed to be another, where illusions are unpacked and explained to the audience — sometimes. “Now You See Me 2” wants to expose the wires and strings behind these tricks, but only some of them; the rest you just have to take on faith.
“Now You See Me 2” also wants to make magic cool, hip, contemporary and used in the service of something greater than just wonder and entertainment. If the performances weren’t so hokey, it might be easier to buy that magicians are actually cool. Lizzy Caplan fulfills the lady quota, but her jokester persona is dialed up to hyperactive. Harrelson, too, is saddled with playing his character’s own twin, replete with curly wig and blindingly white fake teeth. He seems to be having fun with it, but it’s painfully unfunny.
The film, written by Ed Solomon and Pete Chiarelli, is just too busy, too concerned with personal journeys, vendettas and conflicts, and the message about digital privacy is just a device in the spectacle of plot twists rather than actual cultural commentary. The entire film is about chasing a little thingamabob, and then the purpose of the thingamabob is quickly swept aside.
The story itself of “Now You See Me 2” is one giant magic trick. But there’s something disingenuous in following characters, their choices and actions for two-plus hours, only to find out someone else was pulling the strings. What’s the fun in that?
“Now You See Me 2” delivers as light, globe-trotting summer escapism — an “Oceans 11” with sleight of hand. There’s action, illusion, exotic locations, Morgan Freeman’s voice over. Maybe if the filmmakers had edited down some of their ideas, this illusion would feel seamless and breathtaking, rather than frenzied and winded.
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