There's little magic to be had from watching "Now You See Me," a splashy, noisy and frankly preposterous action caper about a quartet of illusionists with a Robin Hood complex. For all the talent up on the screen — and one can't fault the performances — the movie just doesn't deliver.
This is partly due to the split focus of the script by Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt (based on a story by Yakin & Ricourt) that rarely allows the viewer sufficient time to side with the good guys or the bad guys — or to even identify which is which.
On one hand, there are the Four Horsemen, an expert team of conjurers who are united (by whom, it's a secret until the end) to apparently rob banks via their flashy, high-tech stage shows. They then distribute the spoils to needy audience members (i.e. everyone) as part of, we will learn, a bigger-picture revenge. These sleight-of-hand stars include J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a brash magician and nominal group leader; sexy escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), sly mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson); and crafty street magician-card sharp Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Little more is revealed about these outsized talents except that they sort of like each other — and they sort of don't.
On the flip side are hapless FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo, at his wry and rumpled best) and Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent), the pretty Interpol cop he's paired with to help bring down the Horsemen and serve as a possible romantic interest. Dylan's rude to her, Alma's more civil to him than he even remotely deserves; you know at some point they'll kiss — it's just a matter of when (and in this case, why).
Rounding out the troops as the lawbreakers and the lawmakers flit from Las Vegas to New Orleans to New York playing cat and mouse are the Horsemen's benefactor, insurance company magnate Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a shrewd former magician who now publicly — and quite profitably — debunks illusionists for a reality TV show. As with everyone and everything else here, it's safe to assume that they're not exactly what they seem.
Director Louis Leterrier (the "Transporter" series, the "Clash of the Titans" remake) keeps things moving at a quick, often dizzying pace, the better to patch over the story's ginormous holes and frequent faith-leaps. To Leterrier's credit, he makes the most of several dazzling moments of magician showmanship that, convincing or not, are at least fleetingly fun to behold.
Unfortunately — at least for the viewer — the illusionists are always so many steps ahead of their pursuers that it saps the potential tension from the film's chase-thriller aspect and makes each of the Horsemen's "getaway" moments feel increasingly ho-hum.
In addition, instead of the movie ending at a point of relative reason, it sprouts a kind of extra third act that twists and spins the already elaborate plot into the ozone. While the film's final surprise may provide a catharsis of sorts from all the preceding mayhem, it opens a whole new can of questions best left unexamined.
As Eisenberg's Atlas says of the magic game early on, "The closer you look, the less you see." The same could apply to sitting through this hard-working, hard-to-swallow concoction.
'Now You See Me'
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some action and sexual content.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
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