Editor’s Notes: Now You See Me 2 is currently out in wide theatrical release.
Three years ago, corporate greed and malfeasance took it squarely in the chin, losing by TKO in the ninth round. Of course, that really didn’t happen, but it gave the Ocean’s Eleven-inspired Now You See Me, a modest heist thriller centered on globe-trotting, rock-star magicians turned Robin Hood stand-ins, a feel-good, contemporary vibe that resonated with audiences here (the states) and abroad (everywhere else). Slickly, capably directed by Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk, The Transporter 1 and 2), Now You See Me had everything a crowd-pleasing, four-quadrant film should have: A dynamic, chemistry-rich ensemble cast, a lively, propulsive screenplay filled with an overabundance of narrative switchbacks and a lightly comic tone, and Leterrier’s efficient, economical direction. Once Now You See Me proved to be a minor international hit, a sequel was all but inevitable and here we are.
It’s unequal parts spectacle, drama, and comedy, a semi-satisfying mix especially in comparison to the novelty, freshness, and originality of its predecessor.
Leterrier, however, chose not to return for Now You See Me 2. Instead Jon M. Chu, the director of not one, but two Justin Bieber music documentaries, Justin Bieber’s Believe and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, as well as G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D, took over reins for the sequel. Chu delivers exactly what you’d expect from a filmmaker of Chu’s caliber and background: Competent, anonymous direction, an unobtrusive visual style, and ultimately, surface-deep, disposable entertainment. Chu and his screenwriter, Ed Solomon, replace the still relevant, if somewhat stale topicality of the first film with a takedown involving an Apple/Google-inspired mega-tech company, Octa, and its surreptitious, privacy-stealing plans.
It’s almost enough to send the audience into spasms and paroxysms, not of delight, but of boredom-producing yawns. Chu, however, saves Now You See Me 2 by introducing a new lead villain, Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), a reclusive tech billionaire who forcibly recruits the Four Horsemen, showman J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), card specialist Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), and all-around mage Lula (Lizzy Caplan), stepping in for Isla Fischer’s recently departed Henley Reeves (Henley receives a one sentence brushoff, never to be referenced again), to steal a revolutionary decryption software from a seemingly impregnable facility in Macau (globe-trotting: check) after he kidnaps them from the Octa gig moments after it went South. As Mabry will respond with extreme prejudice if they refuse, non-compliance isn’t an option for the Four Horsemen.
. . . maybe the magic trick isn’t any of the several, CGI-aided tricks on screen, but the one where audiences forget what they’ve just seen moments after leaving the movie theater.
FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) finds himself on the run after Mabry outs his role as the presumptive leader of the Four Horsemen. Eventually, Rhodes, accompanied by onetime/current nemesis, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the magic debunker Rhodes held responsible for his father’s untimely death several decades earlier (a vendetta that fueled Rhodes to put an extremely elaborate, logic-defying master plan into motion), arrives in Macau, but apparently too late to help the Four Horsemen. The climax takes Rhodes and the Four Horsemen to London for the obligatory final confrontation with the reliably villainous Mabry and a very special guest star (hint: It’s not Melanie Laurent). It’s unequal parts spectacle, drama, and comedy, a semi-satisfying mix especially in comparison to the novelty, freshness, and originality of its predecessor.
Give Chu credit, though. He works valiantly to add just enough newness beyond the cast swap-outs and additions to make a second go-round with Rhodes and the Four Horsemen a worthwhile experience for moviegoers. Removing Laurent’s character and adding Natalie Austin (Sanaa Lathan), Rhodes’ new, hard-driving FBI boss, doesn’t quite do the trick, though. Neither does giving Atlas an out-of-nowhere grudge against Rhodes over leadership of the Four Horsemen. Likewise the forced, banter-free romance between Jack and Lula. With the overriding emphasis on the fast-moving plot – the better to keep audience from second guessing any potential holes in said plot – the characters never rise above a superficial collection of tics, their respective narrative functions, or the personas of the actors playing them. Then again, maybe the magic trick isn’t any of the several, CGI-aided tricks on screen, but the one where audiences forget what they’ve just seen moments after leaving the movie theater.
Chu delivers exactly what you’d expect from a filmmaker of Chu’s caliber and background: Competent, anonymous direction, an unobtrusive visual style, and ultimately, surface-deep, disposable entertainment.