Is magic all about preparation and a well-funded bag of tricks, or is it a spontaneous expression of talent? Now You See Me 2 makes contradictory claims for both sides but never decides on an angle. If you’re here looking for real magic, or even a clever facsimile, this ain’t the place.
Fortunately there’s no reason for us to care either way, at least not in this context. This sequel — an “oh, they made another one?” scenario if ever there was one — is all about flashy stunts performed by outsized personalities navigating the rickety framework of a nation-hopping thriller plot. The point of this brisk, noisy movie isn’t to convince anyone of the viability of feats of hypnosis and illusion, but to sweep audiences into a whirlwind of mystique and action.
Now You See Me 2 is better than its predecessor. It is is less smug, and far less cynical. You may recall the original film posited a nouveau Robin Hood collective of magicians known as the Four Horsemen essentially buying a fanbase by showering audiences with money stolen from an insurance baron. Basking in audience adulation rings pathetic when you’re showering onlookers with twenties.
Three of the old horsemen return (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco) with Lizzy Caplan signing on as the new fourth. The crew chafes under the cautious leadership of Mark Ruffalo, who guided them to take down Michael Caine’s sneering 1%-er in the last movie. Ruffalo plays a magician’s son who is also an FBI agent and secretly the conduit to an underground magic cabal but mostly Mark Ruffalo. Daniel Radcliffe steps in to move the plot along, playing one of those irritating young billionaires who basically owns a city and still has time to practice magic tricks because they can buy a 25th hour in the day.
Radcliffe ropes the Horsemen into stealing a MacGuffin based on the claim that most of the money stolen in the first film was actually his. The plotting features a mouthful of inane technobabble about a new phone which siphons data from anyone who uses it, and ideas such as “one person is just a bit in a stream of data” and “in a world of surveillance not being seen is the greatest illusion.” It also pulls the rug out from the main characters, in an “operatives without an agency” structure familiar to the Mission: Impossible movies, and sets them to run around in Macau.
It’s all nonsense, just as Mark Ruffalo’s character having the keys to a magic carousel was crazy talk in the first movie. That’s OK, because the action gives Ruffalo the opportunity to breathe fire, and allows Woody Harrelson to vaguely impersonate Matthew McConaughey, to an oddly funny if not very convincing effect. Radcliffe reaches for and easily hits evil and insecure notes; it’s a pleasure just to watch him sipping tea with Michael Caine, no matter the context. Lizzy Caplan is the most entertaining performer in the film even as she wrestles with awkward jokes about the cast’s very real gender imbalance. Morgan Freeman and Jesse Eisenberg don’t quite hit the playful tone the film requires.
Now You See Me 2 wins points by never suggesting we’re marks for its “magic tricks.” The pitch has been recalibrated so the characters are fooling those around them, but we’re in on the gag. That helps, as this movie is no better than the first at convincing me any of the tricks are work by the actors rather than movie gimmickry. The central setpiece has the Horsemen writhing and pirouetting as they use playing card manipulation to steal a bit of tech. It appears to be built from camera gags, CG and editing as much as performance. The sequence is a ludicrous concept, but one just barely pulled off with verve and a bit of a wink.
Director Jon M Chu (Jem, Step Up 2 The Streets) guides the sequel with a steady hand, at times hitting a tone in the style of Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans movies, where plot and mechanics are often just a mechanism to put a bunch of charismatic performers into the same room. (In fact, Radcliffe’s character basically adapts Andy Garcia’s Ocean’s 12 motivation.) Chu doesn’t have Soderbergh’s ability to make precise calculation appear free and effortless… but then, few people do.
Now You See Me 2 is rarely convincing, but with an evident awareness of its own flimsiness the daffy blitz is a fine distraction as it races by. I kept looking to Lizzy Caplan; her character is thrilled to be on a big stage, practicing the tricks she loves. Her energy, and that of Radcliffe, Ruffalo, and Dave Franco, keeps the action buoyant enough. The film has the misdirection part of the trick down pat, and doesn’t seem to care much if we notice that it’s all a gag.