The razzle dazzles, but the smoke never quite hides the mirrors in "Now You See Me," a super-slick new magicians' heist picture that demonstrates, once again, how tough it is to make "magic" work as a movie subject.
A medium that is, by definition, a trick has a very hard time making the illusions real, realistic and anything anyone would be impressed by. Ask "Burt Wonderstone." Ask "The Illusionist."
A quartet of street hustlers and rising stars of the various corners of the magic trade are recruited by a mysterious hoodie-wearing figure for a series of epic stunts.
Billing themselves as "the Four Horsemen," misdirection man Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) and his former assistant Henley (Isla Fisher), "mentalist" Merritt (Woody Harrelson) and card-sharp Jack (Dave Franco) proceed to star in magic "events" where they catch the imagination of the world and a super-rich promoter (Michael Caine).
"Tonight," they announce, "we're going to rob a bank." Which they do, a continent away, raining currency down on an audience that appreciates a bank finally getting its just deserts.
The impossible, physics-defying caper? Remember, Atlas has told us in the narration, "The closer you look, the less you see."
Mark Ruffalo plays the comically hyperventilating FBI agent always a step behind the Four Horsemen. And Morgan Freeman takes the part of the mysterious magic expert who may be helping the feds, explaining to them (and the audience) how tricks work. Or maybe he's playing another game.
A lot is riding on momentum in this Louis Leterrier ("Clash of the Titans," "The Transporter") thriller. But it never gets up a good head of steam. Freeman and Ruffalo make strong impressions. But there's little character development, and the point of view shifts, willy-nilly, between the magicians — who start to feel they're willing puppets in some larger scheme — and the cops, while Ruffalo works himself into a fine comic fury.
It's a plot-heavy thriller, with too much explaining and need to explain. And without pacing, the mind wanders into "Wait, how could any entity other than Hollywood stage a New York bridge crash like that?" and the like.
For all its showmanship, "Now You See Me" has a lot less up its sleeve than it lets on.
'Now You See Me' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language, some action and sexual content)
Running time: 1:42