Now You See Me was the sleeper hit film of the 2013, taking in close to half a billion dollars with its quirky charm and stylish, slick magic tricks. It’s no wonder then that a second film was commissioned, and rumours of a third flick abound. While Now You See Me 2 is more a shadow of its former self than a striking sequel, it’s the escapist fun (quite literally at times) of the cinema-fare of old. Where Harry Potter (2001 – 2011) was all about the ‘real’ magic, and The Prestige (2006) was all about the reveal, Now You See Me 2 plays it smarter and sexier, to make magic seem cool again.
Set one year after the roguish Robin-hood antics of the first film, Now You See Me 2 reunites the Horsemen alongside Lizzy Caplan’s new member Lula, who takes over from Isla Fisher’s Henley by adding some much needed physical humour. After their comeback show is hijacked by a tech genius, the horsemen flee down a shoot only to wind up in China, with no recollection of how they got there. Forced into a shady deal with an even shadier character, the Horsemen must conjure an extravagant plan to steal a piece of technology that could deliver the right kind of information to the wrong sort of people. With the FBI hot on their heels once more and the tables turning as the illusionists become the disillusioned, you’re left wondering if, like the first film, you are playing close enough attention.
The film takes its time finding its momentum and sadly never quite reaches the fever pitched twist turn of its predecessor. Instead it is a different dynamic, with the audience already aware of where Mark Ruffalo’s allegiance really lies and the knowledge that a big reveal will occur at some point in the two-hour roller-coaster ride. It’s a credit to director John Chu that it still manages this, catching even the most cynical of us slightly off guard. As Daniel Atlas quotes in the film, the real power of magic lies in a closed fist and the possibility of the secret that lies within it. Even if the secrets are slightly more lacklustre than last time around.
What raises its status though is the fact almost all the old gang has returned, including Mark Ruffalo as FBI double agent Dylan Rhodes, Jesse Eisenberg as headstrong horseman Daniel Atlas, Woody Harrelson as veteran Merritt McKinney, Dave Franco as the young and energetic Jack Wilder and Morgan Freeman as experienced antagonist Thaddeus Bradley. Two newcomers also bring some fresh-blood to the franchise, with Lizzy Caplan delivering a scene-stealing performance as female-replacement Lula and Daniel Radcliffe’s Walter Mabry proving that even one-dimensional villains can be interesting to watch. Michael Caine is severely under-used however, his big dramatic return overshadowed by the fact he looks like he would rather have phoned in his performance for the payday he pocketed. Harrelson in contrast is the opposite, almost over-used, with the actor playing dual roles as Merritt and his crazy identical tanned twin. That, sadly, is not an illusion, coming as a serious distraction to the authenticity and appeal the first film forged.
The real problem with the film though comes from Ed Solomon’s script. Where his first attempt co-written with Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt was stylish, substantial and genuinely surprising, his sequel script comes off as a convoluted mess with no sense of purpose or real humour. Brief moments remind us of the series inordinate potential, like Caplan’s crazy physical humour involving a sawn off hand, or the genuine rapport between Wilder and McKinney. Outside this though, you are left wishing the line ‘look closely, because the closer you think you are, the less you will actually see,’ wasn’t so accurate.
When the film does hit the right notes though, we are presented with a rollicking ride. The glory of Now You See Me 2 is that it doesn’t rely on heavy special effects, jarring action sequences, or ridiculous romance, but instead focuses on the pure thrill of the unknown becoming known. There is colossally cool card scene that steals the show and pays for the price of admission alone. And that’s not to mention Daniel Atlas’ crazy clothes-changing prowess and god-like powers over rain, all of which remind us that you don’t have to know how a magic trick happens to make it fun to watch, but when you do it can sometimes take it next level. The real magic though is taking four strong solo acts and making them work together as one single organism, something we are promised time and time again, and are delivered by the time the credits roll. Eisenberg, Harrelson, Franco, and Caplan are a great team, even if it feels that the powers that be were too convinced by their ego that they were two steps ahead, when really they were four steps behind.
Rating: 3 Horseman out of 5
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