Four street magicians (and hucksters) are brought together by a mysterious benefactor to form the prestidigitation team known as the “Four Horsemen.” Their high tech Las Vegas act dazzles the crowd – and drains the bank accounts of unscrupulous industrial leaders as they, like Robin Hood, take from the rich and give to the poor while they evade the FBI and Interpol in “Now You See Me.”
We recently reviewed the wonderful documentary about magic and sleight of hand, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.” That film explores the history of the art of sleight of hand as seen through the eyes (and hands) of actor-magician-author Jay. So, when I saw that Hollywood has a big budget thriller about bank robbing magicians, I figured, what the heck, it could be fun.
“Now You See Me” IS fun, but, except for the introduction of each of the soon-to-be Horsemen, there is little by way of actual magic and misdirection. This CGI-heavy story is about talented magi – J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) – brought together by an unknown patron to exact revenge. They are pursued by a resolute FBI special agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) who is joined in the hunt for the hi-tech robbers by technically savvy Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent). They, in turn, are advised by master magician Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who can see through the Horsemen’s illusions.
“Now You See Me” replaces the sleight of hand of illusionists (“magic,” as we know it, has been around since the time of ancient Egypt) with the usual Hollywood “magic” of CGI. It is all very slickly put together and designed to entertain the eye (though not the mind) of the viewer. The magic is more along the lines of Doug Henning and David Copperfield than Harry Houdini and there is little, if any, of the “how did they do that?” wonder that a real illusionist evokes.
Director Louis Leterrier, know mainly for the “Clash of the Titan” franchise, does yeoman’s work in this F/X-driven whirlwind that is very similar to the “Ocean’s 11” films. “Now You See Me” benefits most by its experienced cast. The younger players – Eisenberg, Fisher and Franco – are well-seasoned veterans and each fills their role deftly. Woody Harrelson is, well, Woody. He is always a pleasure to watch and adds his sense of humor to his hypnotist/mentalist, Merritt. Morgan Freeman is, as usual, a strong paternal character who, though helping the FBI, admires the Four Horsemen. Mark Ruffalo gives his agent Dylan an impatience that is explained only in the end. I have liked Melanie Laurent since I first noticed her in “Inglorious Basterds” and she holds her own as smart Interpol cop Alma.
It takes a strong cast like this to be able to rise above the copious visual F/X, making “Now You See It” a cut above the director’s mostly CGI “Titan” flicks. When you strip away the effects and look at the story, it is a pretty routine yarn. The young Turks of street magic are recruited to exact the vengeance of their mysterious employer and a stalwart cop works relentlessly to stop whatever their caper is.
I think I want to watch “Deceptive Practice” again and enjoy seeing the art of real illusionists, not hi-tech Hollywood “magic.” It was fun while it lasted. I give it a C+.
Sleight of hand magician J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, "The Social Network," "Zombieland"), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, "Zombieland"), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher, "The Great Gatsby") and telekenetic manipulator Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, "21 Jump Street") are surprised to find they've all been invited to the same, decrepit NYC apartment. Once inside, they're treated to a 3D hologram of blueprints. Backed by multimillionaire investor Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine, "The Dark Knight"), they team up as "The Four Horseman" and pull off elaborate robberies in full view of an audience, confounding the FBI in "Now You See Me."
Dueling magicians, debunkers and trick heists have been the subject of films before ("The Prestige," "The Illusionist," "Flawless"), but this one, written by Ed Solomon ("Men in Black"), Boaz Yakin ("Safe) & Edward Ricourt, is spread too thin. Director Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter," "Clash of the Titans") doesn't use sleight of hand to keep his audience on their toes so much as constantly switching focus among a myriad of protagonists - the magicians, the debunker, the backer, the FBI, Interpol and magicians' marks - gutting the build of his central storyline in the process. The film's most essential element, the specialties of its magicians, is relegated to their introduction rather than as talents utilized to pull off their capers.
"Now You See Me" begins with tons of promise as The Four Horseman come together and rob a Parisian bank of 3 million Euros from a show in Las Vegas, showering the loot on their audience. FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo, "The Avengers") is suspicious of his pairing with French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent, "Inglourious Basterds"), but they get a lead when magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman, "The Dark Knight") illustrates how their trick was done. Still it's not enough to stop them at their next gig in New Orleans where Tressler is astonished to become their next victim. Rhodes gets a break when he finds their headquarters, but will his lead be enough to catch them?
The film's frequent rejoinder, 'The closer you look, the less you see,' is quite obviously meant to apply to its own audience, but the big reveal as to just who is pulling the strings and why is a letdown as the characters' motivations have been lost in the shuffle. Membership in the 'Eye of Horus' is supposed to be a professional pinnacle, but none of the four are given any personal connection to it. Bradley's 'Magic Unmasked' reality show is his own financial instigator, but never offered as a target in and of itself. There's no emotional investment in the story of Lionel Shrike, a magician who overstepped his talents that's pulled out later like a rabbit out of a hat.
Eisenberg is really terrific here, a cocky womanizer holding a secret torch for former assistant Henley (whose own torch is more readily readable). Using the rat-a-tat delivery he employed in "Social Network," Eisenberg is one cool customer, making bravado sexy. Harrelson is the humorous component, conning with mind reading tricks. Fisher, who has a great opening bit, is saddled with a character that gets sexist treatment, relegated back to an assistant role in the Horseman. But just as you may be wondering where Franco fits into all this, he gets to display his physicality in a well orchestrated one-on-one clash with Ruffalo. Ruffalo, who gets the bulk of screen time here, spends most of it gnashing his teeth. Laurent paints a sympathetic character, but her conflict with Ruffalo is too contrived. Caine and Freeman add no dimension to the muddle.
The film has some great sets and the heists and chases are good enough diversions in and of themselves, but "Now You See Me" ultimately vanishes in a puff of smoke.
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