Like any good magic trick, the aim of the prestidigitator ( which is simply a fancy word for magician ) is to dazzle it’s audience with a flashy mix of sleight of hand and complex misdirection culminating in a cathartically dazzling display of illusion meant to astound and mystify the audience.
Director Louis Leterrier’s new film “Now You See Me”; while often quite entertaining to watch and experience for the ride; also manages to create a spectacular on-screen illusion, that ultimately confounds and mystifies for all the wrong reasons. The film is a visually glitzy blend of interesting, but not fully-fleshed out, characters; Vegas-style magic acts and action sequences all centering around a series of Robin-Hood style heist capers where the true end-game is kept a mystery until the final reel.
The central characters in this harmlessly frothy bit of razzle dazzle include a cocky and semi arrogant illusionist, Atlas ( Jesse Eisenberg, channeling a tad too much of his Mark Zuckerberg character from The Social Network ), smart-talking mentalist and street hustler Merritt ( Woody Harrelson ), comely escape artist Henley ( Isla Fisher ) and a young but charming pickpocket named Jack ( Dave Franco ) who later surprisingly displays the fighting skills of a PG-rated Jason Bourne.
The film opens with the four struggling illusionists, some of whom we eventually learn have a bit of history together, separately trying to eke out a living utilizing their illusionary skills with mostly disappointing success. That is until one day, all four receive a mysterious card summoning them to a shabby locale where a mysterious unknown mentor awaits to transform them into one magical quartet known as The Four Horsemen.
Fast forward one year, and The Horsemen are playing to a standing room only crowd on a massive Las-Vegas stage, now bankrolled by a millionaire financier, Tressler ( Michael Caine ). The group confidently proclaim they’re about to pull off an astounding illusion by choosing someone from the audience and rob a bank before the massive crowd’s collective and discerning eyes.
They randomly select a French spectator and announce that they will physically transport him from the massively illuminated and sparse Vegas stage to his own bank’s fortified vault in Paris. Upon his arrival, they transport the millions of Euros contained within the vault to rain down upon the Vegas crowd. In one of the film’s many visually interesting displays of illusion, The Four Horseman indeed pull off the caper flawlessly in front of thousands watching their every move. Among the spectators in the crowd is Thaddeus Bradley ( Morgan Freeman ) a self-appointed debunker of magic acts for profit.
The amazingly brazen Vegas to Paris and back again heist also attracts the attention of the FBI, which recruits a skeptical agent Dylan Rhodes ( Mark Ruffalo ) to investigate. The scruffy, physically rumpled Rhodes is joined by a beautiful Interpol investigator Alma Dray ( Melanie Laurent ) to probe the apparent heist. The relationship between Rhodes and Dray is initially bumpy as the frustrated Rhodes would rather work the case solo; but it doesn’t take long before an investigative partnership begins to unfold in more ways than one.
Rhodes and Dray interrogate the four magicians who confidently toy with Rhodes, knowing full well he can’t prove how they pulled off the stunt. Upon their release, they announce the Vegas bit was just the beginning of the three-part series of increasingly larger stunts of playful larceny. The next big performance is to be played out in New Orleans which will hold some unexpected surprises for their well-funded benefactor, Tressler.
Throughout the film, The Horsemen gleefully revel in the fact, which they proudly proclaim to Rhodes and their pursuers, that they are always one step or more ahead of everyone else. Indeed, it seems for much of the film, that they’re right in that cocky attitude. The confident panache by which they pull off each caper makes you root for them, though it’s unknown what their ultimate intent is for all their magical mischief.
To divulge more about the resulting labyrinthine plot line would necessitate including far too many spoilers as Rhodes, Dray and Bradley try to figure out the ultimate goal of The Four Horsemen’s very public series of felonious capers bedazzled under a bigger than life veneer of David Copperfield-like magic acts.
“Now You See Me” is an admittedly fun journey in the moment. Like the audience in the movie, its easy for we, the real-life audience to also get caught up in the wonder of the magic being performed on-screen. Even a blink of an eye quick bit of slight of hand involving handcuffs between Eisenberg and Ruffalo in the FBI interrogation room evokes a momentarily enjoyable “how did he just do that?” reaction, even if CGI effects were involved.
Also, the screenplay contains enough genuinely clever and fun dialogue to keep the characters interesting, albeit rather one-dimensional. Director Letterier infuses the film with a mix of exciting action sequences, though the rapid pace of the film and it’s editing risks overshadowing the complex narrative. The storyline plays out like a classic Mission Impossible cat and mouse caper, filled with twists and turns. Often the journey is confusing, and leads to plot holes that upon later reflection are pretty glaring. Still, the ride is fun and compelling enough to keep you interested to see just where all this mysterious complexity is headed.
Director Letterier and the talented cast of likable characters keeps the pace jaunty enough to keep your interest throughout. Though, Letterier ( whose previous work has been The Transporter and Clash of the Titans ) tends to rely too much at times on sweeping camera zooms and pans, darting the lens around the proceedings as if he’s directing a prime time game show.
That said, a nice touch are several moments where the hidden tricks behind the illusory magic are explained within the investigative narrative. This device gives the big tricks and illusions a bit more depth and interest; rather than simply being written off as Hollywood CGI effects in post production.
Perhaps the biggest, though not lethal failing of “Now You See Me” is Letterier tacking on a somewhat ambiguous scene at the near conclusion of the film regarding the ultimate fate of The Four Horsemen. The final couple of scenes are meant to reveal the end game and motivation behind all that precedes them. However, while some questions are indeed surprisingly answered, they also provoke a few unanswered questions and plot holes that defy credibility.
Still, “Now You See Me” is an overall fun piece of sparkly entertainment. As a movie driven by a Las Vegas-like magic narrative, it’s certainly more fun and captivating than the abysmally disappointing and somewhat similarly themed Steve Carell vehicle “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” from earlier this year.
Like a well executed magician’s trick, “Now You See Me” allows you to be knowingly conned by something incredibly simplistic; but you nonetheless enjoy the dazzling spectacle… if only magically for the moment.
Tim Estiloz is a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. – Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.