Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mark Ruffalo (and a host of others)
Directed by Louis Leterrier
"Come in close... closer... because the more you think you see, the easier it will be to fool you." Thus says professional illusionist J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), by way of introduction to "Now You See Me". It turns out to be something of a double - or triple - sided dare to the audience, but therein lies the nub of this whole picture. It's a flashy, fast-paced, magician-based, action-comedy, heist thriller; in other words, its recipe contains ingredients from many different sources. It fits into and can appeal to fans of many genres, although it may confound certain expectations precisely because of that diversity. From the outset it declares its intent to deploy misdirection, action, comedy and - yes - magic, albeit of the cinematic kind, to keep the viewer from guessing the unlikeliest of twists, and defies them to keep up if they can or care to. Like a spectacular trick, in other words. Despite mixed reviews, it was a modest-to-respectable hit on its release in 2013 ($350m worldwide gross from a $75m budget), and a sequel arrived recently, so it seems appropriate to revisit it to see if the original magic still dazzles, or just fizzles.
It's directed by Louis Leterrier, chief alumnus of the school of what could reasonably be called the "Luc-Besson-produced-trashy-Euro-action" genre (which seems relentlessly to throw up guilty pleasure after guilty pleasure). Besson, of course, is the eccentric Gallic genius who came to prominence with "Le Grand Bleu" and "Nikita" before making the move to Hollywood and turning out "Leon" and the brilliantly bonkers "The Fifth Element" amongst other films. Leterrier made his name with the majestic Jason Statham vehicle "The Transporter" and the first of the "Taken" movies, responsible for Liam Neeson's unlikely reinvention as an action star, before helming "The Incredible Hulk" in 2009, one of the early - and criminally overlooked - entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So it should have been clear to anyone paying attention that "Now You See Me" wouldn't be a slow-burning, brooding, psychological magic movie in the vein of late 2000s offerings "The Prestige" , or "The Illusionist". It would be something with frenetic pace, fun, and spectacle. If those films would be Marc Salem or Derren Brown getting into your head, this would be David Copperfield or Penn and Teller dropping your jaw. But it just could be unexpectedly subtle too, beneath the bombast.
A prologue introduces us to four characters, in various locations, all carrying out different forms of magic tricks. In Chicago, the aforementioned Atlas looks to be a street hustler, but the punchline to his trick involves the spectacular co-operation of a skyscraper. Down in New Orleans, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is definitely a hustler, using his powers of "mentalism" and improbably effective hypnosis techniques to shake down unsuspecting marks. Young New Yorker Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is shown to be a low-rate spoon-bending Uri Geller but a top rate pickpocket. Finally, in LA, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) performs an amazing, piranha infested version of the famous disappearance / reappearance act (think The Wet Transported Woman). They are all stalked by a mysterious hooded figure, and are all drawn to a derelict NYC appartment... A year on, they're seen performing together as "The Four Horsemen", carrying out an impressive, glitzy act in Las Vegas, in which they somehow rob a bank in Paris, and scatter the stolen banknotes down on their incredulous but adoring fans... FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is tasked with working out what they did, and how they did it. He's reluctantly saddled with French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) to assist him on the case, but is taunted along the way by magician-turned-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who claims to know how every elaborate stunt is engineered, and constantly reminds him how he - Rhodes, that is, is several steps behind the perpetrators. The Horsemen are under the patronage of insurance magnate Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), and are seemingly untouchable. If they have committed a crime, they point out, wouldn't the FBI be admitting that magic is real? There's no proof of their guilt.
Essentially, then, that's the neat high-concept pitch. Magicians rob banks and give the money away - Robin Hood style. Catch them if you can. The movie hustles briskly along between a series of bombastic set-pieces. The initial Las Vegas-to-Paris bank robbery scene is fantastic, all the more so because Bradley later demonstrates exactly how it was carried out. A second featured stage show by the now fugitive Horsemen provides a neat twist which alters the loyalties of several major characters, and their subsequent flight from pursuit leads to an exciting chase scene in which it becomes apparent why Leterrier was chosen to direct. This is further evinced later by a quickfire hand-to-hand combat sequence and a breathtaking extended car chase, both of which rival anything in the director's previous offerings. As one would demand from such a director, the "action" is delivered with dizzying velocity. During the magic act set pieces the camera swoops energetically over the stage, constantly moving, in a way which makes the viewer think they couldn't spot the secret to the trick even if they tried, so we are swept up in the jaw-dropping payoffs. The climactic showdown between the law and the law-breakers is a headspinning, disorientating feast of light and sound, appropriate to an illusionists' show meant to overwhelm.
In the face of this hokum, the ensemble cast is hugely impressive. Daniel Atlas somehow becomes the de-facto leader of the pack, although it's never really expressed exactly how or why, but Eisenberg's charm is magnetic, so his arrogance is easy to take on board. Harrelson's McKinney spends much of the time needling the others, threatening to use his "powers of the mind", giving rise to much of the snappy dialogue that ensures proceedings are so enjoyable, and his jousting with Eisenberg is often hilarious. Morgan Freeman turns in one of his best performances in a while; of course he's doing his customary expositional role, but with a great smugness and glint in the eye, because - remember - he's a step ahead all the way through. Mark Ruffalo plays the constantly-frustrated FBI man almost too well, whilst Mélanie Laurent gives more than as good as she gets as the investigator who knows more about the background to the case than expected, and refuses - sometimes fierily - to be sidelined. It wouldn't be expected that a picture like this would deliver deep character development, but the other two members of the gang are given fairly short-shrift in those terms; not that that would necessarily have been the prime concern of any viewer. Franco's Wilder is patronisingly dismissed as the "little boy" of the troupe, whilst Fishers's Reeves is depicted as little more than Altas' glamourous former assistant - despite her evident performing skill.
The script by Boaz Yakin, Ed Solomon and newcomer Edward Ricourt is peppered with snappy and highly entertaining dialogue. It's as amusing as you might expect from Solomon, who co-wrote the "Bill and Ted" films, and it's as twisty-turny as you would expect from Yakin, whose directorial debut was the brilliant "Fresh" back in 1994. Ricourt's subsequent work on the "Jessica Jones" series is also somewhat in evidence. Rising star of the scoring world, Brian Tyler ("Iron Man 3", umpteen "Fast and Furious" movies) delivers a bombastic suite of music with a bold, memorable theme, which has an oddly 70s feel to it. And as mentioned, the visual work by dual DPs Mitchell Amundsen ("Transformers", "Wanted") and Larry Fong ("300", "Watchmen") bathes the film in a glorious neon sparkle at times.
Many viewers and reviewers complained that the final, "huge" twist was unsatisfactory. But to quibble on that point is to miss the point entirely; it's like grumbling that Houdini didn't really transport the elephant away, he simply hid it, of course. The fact that much is made of explaining the seemingly impossible tricks as the tale unfolds makes the final rug-pulling so perfectly ironic. Obviously it means that one character does spend 98% of the running time acting completely falsely, but it's forgivable given the pleasant surprise. Didn't see that coming, eh? It's magic. Misdirection. That's the whole point.
And it's not as if there aren't huge clues littered throughout. For example, when McKinney first meets Rhodes, he taunts him about his "daddy issues". On first pass, it just comes across as comic bluster, with the implication that most of Merritt's predictions are "targeted guesses", as he himself claims they are. But on a second viewing, in the knowledge that the whole plot is about revenge for the death of Lionel Shrike, it can be seen that this is fundamentally true. There are plenty more examples.
Ultimately, "Now You See Me" is showy, silly and great fun. The cast are all at the top of their games, Laurent and Ruffalo in particular displaying palpable chemistry, and all are clearly having fun. It barrels along at pace and with pizzazz. It definitely does bear up to a second viewing, and generally plays a lot better than some of the original snooty reviews would suggest.
Now, let's see if the magic can be re-conjured for the second installment. And remember the first rule of magic: always be the smartest guy in the room.