This sequel to the watchable 2013 caper/con movie brings back everyone from the large and starry cast but the female leads … with Isla Fisher’s character replaced as ‘girl horseman’ by Lizzy Caplan and Melanie Laurent of Interpol written out and Sanaa Lathan of the FVI dropped into her spot. Competent hack director Louis Leterrier is replaced by slightly more competent hack director Jon M. Chu; in my books, competent hack isn’t a putdown, by the way, better a solid professional turning out well-made, well-paced, reasonably engaging entertainment genre films tham, say, Michael Bay blowing shit up or Baz Luhrmann trashing great concepts with disco glitter. Chu is in the decent tradition of Michael Curtiz, Andre de Toth, Henry Hathaway, Val Guest, John Flynn, Pete Hyams, Joe Johnston and other get-the-job-done pros whose films you’d be happy to watch when you’re not in the mood for an Andrei Tarkovsky marathon.
There is a problem here in that Now You See Me built up to a reveal – that (spoiler!) FBI agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) was actually the sponsor of the magician heist team he was supposedly out to catch – which can’t be duplicated here (though there is a well-telegraphed twist as someone reverts to their usual screen persona after a feint). The new set-up makes for less interesting character interaction. Another worrisome issue is that all the magicians and all the villains are kind of unlikeable wiseasses, which works a lot better for the bad guys (Daniel Radcliffe is excellent as a pint-sized techie smarm-bastard) than the heroes. Caplan, who may be the most promising and versatile lead actress of her generation, is stuck with being just as much of a dick as Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco. This time, Harrelson plays good and evil twins in an entertaining manner which gives him more presence than in the earlier film (surprisingly, given that this is a magic-themed movie, there’s no Prestige-style scene where one brother impersonates the other – though I bet that turns up in the already-greenlit Now You See Me 3).
The thin plot is that he Horsemen want to get in deeper with the mysterious Eye organisation of master magicians (also business saved for later) and stage a raid on a tech launch where they are pwned by Walter (Radcliffe) who trumps their illusion with ‘real magic – also known as science’ when they take an escape route in Brooklyn and wind up in Macau. It’s another bid-for-the-Chinese-market ploy, but anything that gets Tsai Chin (Christopher Lee’s daughter in the 1960s Fu Manchu films) back on screen in a substantial role is a good thing. The foursome are forced by Walter, son of the baddie from the last film (Michael Caine), to steal a doodad from a high-tech facility, which allows for a dazzling display of the simplest of all conjuring tricks (palming a card) choreographed into a standout set-piece. Meanwhile, Rhodes gets old nemesis Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) out of jail to help track down his partners and effect a rescue. It ends up in a big London game of trick and counter-trick that has a satisfying, oldschool Mission: Impossible con as its centerpiece; oddly, the Now You See Me films make more of the vintage Mission: Impossible style than the current big-screen IMF series.
What works in these films is the trickery – and Chu, more than Leterrier, makes the most of the magic heists, balancing the need to surprise the audience with letting us in on how the tricks are done. The nascent franchise is still ramshackle, and needs to find a way of making us care about the Horsemen themselves (they bicker all the time, but not as a cover for actually loving each other on the model of the way Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wrote Fantastic Four in the 1960s), but it’s also seductive, fresh and dazzling the way a magic show should be. My money’s on Rhodes’s magic man Dad Lionel Shrike (Richard Lang) not being dead after all – we were told he was the master of the long game – though I’d also suspect Lang will age into someone gueststarrier next time round.