“You had me at ‘Hell.'”
Summer movie season is officially upon us. That can mean only one thing: sequels, sequels and more sequels. Whether you want them or not. Not to be outshone by the likes of Batman, Superman, X-Men or those snarky Ninja Turtles, The Four Horsemen toss their magical hat into the ring for Now You See Me 2, a playful-if-unnecessary lark of a film that I really wish were titled Now You See Me TOO. There’s more glitz this go round. There’s more glamour, too. There’s more sleight-of-hand than the average viewer can possibly keep up with and more sly winks at the camera than you can count. There’s also more fun in Now You See Me 2‘s two-hour run time than you’ve likely had at the movies this summer.
Three years ago, Now You See Me was a delightfully shallow entry into the realm of ‘magic cinema’. Sure, it lacked the hubris of Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) or the ambition of Neil Burger’s The Illusionist (2006). But what Now You See Me lacked in substance, it made up for in style. If you missed Now You See Me back in 2013, I’ll try and catch you up. That film saw four world class magicians – Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco performing a series of Robin Hood style ‘magic heists’. Targeting shifty banks and shiftier insurance companies, the team won the hearts of the world by spreading the booty amongst the common people. Their reward was admittance into a magical underground organization called ‘The Eye’. Now You See Me 2 picks up about a year after its predecessor. Returning to the fold are OG Horsemen Eisenberg, Harrelson and Franco. Replacing Isla Fisher – who dropped out of the production due to pregnancy – is a new Horseman, the charming and ever wise-cracking Lizzy Caplan.
After a year in hiding, things are not all copacetic for Eisenberg and the rest of The Horsemen. Stalwart performers that they are, the team is desperate for a new challenge and a new audience. Lucky for all, the group’s de-facto leader, FBI double-agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) has been putting the finishing touches on The Horsemen’s next heist. As the group sets out to take down a fascist mobile phone CEO set to steal any and all of your personal information, things take an unexpected twist. Their show gets hijacked. Hauled away to the magical city of Macau, The Horsemen find themselves at the mercy of shady tech magnate Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) … who also wants to steal any and all of your personal information. But he needs a fancy computer chip called ‘the stick’ to do that. And he needs The Horsemen to steal it for him. Like that, our erstwhile heroes are off on another magical adventure in which they outwit and out-magic evil corporate baddies to unmask their evil corporate misdealings. And also save their own asses.
If that all sounds a bit ridiculous, well, that’s because it is. But that’s also part of what makes the movie so charming. Much like its predecessor, Now You See Me 2 is a film that knows exactly how silly it is. And Screenwriter Ed Solomon is not afraid to let the audience in on the joke. But Solomon also understands the first rule of magic – the audience wants to be fooled. To that point, Now You See Me 2 is a film that works best when it’s showing off its big bag of tricks. As in the first film, those tricks grow in size, glitz and ambition as the film progresses and lead to a show stopping finale. As with any sequel, the tricks, the style and the emotional stakes should only get larger. And every single trick in Now You See Me 2‘s bag upstages the original in terms of style and showmanship.
Director Jon M. Chu is largely to thank for that. Chu has made a name for himself in Hollywood over the years by directing stylish but stupid dance movies like Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) and Step Up 3D (2010). He also directed the near unwatchable GI Joe: Retaliation (2013). Last year he showed a distinct knack for the silly with the underwhelming Jem and The Holograms (2015). But the style-over-substance director does well in combining style and silliness this go round and the combination makes for highly entertaining slice of eye candy. He’s aided in his efforts by the undeniable charisma of his performers. Eisenberg, Harrelson, Franco, Radcliffe and Ruffalo all bring their A-games to the film and own their respective stages and characters with a certain level of grace. Completely lost in the mix is Caplan who, as a late comer to the production, is given quite literally nothing to do in this film. Other than to make doe-eyes at Dave Franco. The filmmakers even shamelessly upend her moment in the sun by writing her big finale out of the action. Still, Caplan does her all to bring a little flavor to the character. Hopefully we’ll see her talents unleashed in the forthcoming Now You See Me 3.
With any luck, the filmmakers will bring a little emotion to that film as well. As fun as Now You See Me 2 is when showing off its tricks, the film comes to a grinding halt whenever the action leaves the stage. Much of the off-stage narrative surrounds the back story of Ruffalo’s FBI Agent. We caught a cursory glimpse at that story towards the end of Now You See Me. Turns out there’s more to Dylan’s tale than originally met the eye. But we never learn enough of that story for it to have any real impact. Mostly, it feels like Solomon and Chu are using those plot points to set up the next sequel. Don’t even ask about backstories for the rest of the crew … unless you want to talk about Harrelson’s beyond absurd dual role in this film.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Now You See Me 2 is great cinema. It’s not. But it has zero aspirations to be great cinema. And while I’d usually take immense pleasure in deriding a film that so blatantly relishes the style over substance format, I can’t really fault Now You See Me 2 for its many transgressions. It’s just so much fun to look at. I might be singing a different tune if Now You See Me 2 was being released in late fall. But it’s summertime damnit. A little shameless fun isn’t going to kill us. And Now You See Me 2 fits that bill to the letter. Given how gloomy the summer movie season has been, we’ve all earned it.