Now You See Me 2

I was thinking…

…the term ‘movie magic’ has been in use perhaps since the days of actual magician-turned-filmmaker George Melies.

Melies utilized his mastery of illusion and maximized the potential of celluloid to not simply record events as they happened, but to tell fantastical tales of places that never existed and create images that were impossible to believe but were still somehow real.

The medium has, I will not say advanced, but morphed into something akin to its predecessor without being a direct evolution. Now, movie magic is created, almost entirely, within a computer. Nearly anything can be achieved with enough pixels, enough computing power and enough time for rendering. The thought, wit and genius of pioneers like Melies are long gone.

Or are they?

Now You See Me 2 takes place one year after the conclusion of the 2013 film. The Horsemen are now one magician down (due to the real world pregnancy of actress Isla Fisher). In hiding after their exploits at the end of the last film, the three–Atlas (Jesse EisenbergBatman v Superman), Merritt (Woody HarrelsonMockingjay, Part 2) and Jack (Dave FrancoUnfinished Business)–are awaiting instructions from the Eye.

Special Agent Rhodes (Mark RuffaloThe Avengers: Age of Ultron) gives his FBI overseers the runaround in order to lead them away from the Horsemen, who are under his care.

Tired of waiting for an assignment from Rhodes and irritated Rhodes is considered their leader, Atlas endeavors to make contact with the Eye himself. As if to confirm his misgivings, Rhodes also forces a new member upon the Horsemen–one Lula May (Lizzy CaplanThe Interview, Cloverfield).

Shortly afterward, the Horsemen are given an assignment to expose a software mogul but suddenly find themselves on the run again when their scheme backfires on them.

Through magical means they suddenly find themselves in Macau, the guests of a man in hiding–the former partner of the mogul they had tried to expose. The man, Walter Mabry (Daniel RadcliffeHorns, Harry Potter films), all but demands the Horsemen steal a vital computer chip for him, which will allow him to remain incognito. In exchange, he will not deliver the fugitives to the authorities.

But is everything just an illusion?

There is something inherent in us to want to be like children again. We go to amusement parks to feel the excitement we used to feel about the simplest things. Outgrowing our nightlights, we still go to haunted houses to be frightened. We enjoy magic–or rather, illusions–because we like to be mesmerized, astonished and, on some childlike level, we like knowing that we don’t know how everything works.

Unfortunately, when aided by cameras and computers, illusion just becomes part of the mundane. That is why the director of the original Now You See Me insisted on doing as much of the film’s magic in the real world and not in the confines of digital space.

How much of that magic remains ‘real’ in the sequel has yet to be revealed, but there are certain aspects of the film that are as close to authentic as they could get. Dave Franco really does know how to throw playing cards better than Gambit from the X-Men. Woody Harrelson really did study hypnotism. So, at least some of the illusion is not…uh…illusory.

As to just how much of the film’s legerdemain is digital and how much is, well, analog, perhaps the DVD extras will reveal.

And what would a movie about magicians be without a switcheroo? Hardly ever is a major cast replacement a welcome thing, with the possible exception of side-talker Katie Holmes in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. But when a cast member has to go, it is usually far less insulting to simply replace the character entirely rather than to try to fool us into thinking Sammy Hagar is really David Lee Roth, just with curlier hair. The addition of Lizzy Caplan, however, is not simply a replacement, it is a vibrant improvement. Isla Fisher may be missed, but one is hard-pressed to remember what she brought to the ensemble that Caplan cannot also bring and perhaps bring better.

The existing team continues with their typical aplomb, but Harrelson gets to pull double duty, reminiscent of (spoiler alert) the Borden brothers in Nolan’s The Prestige. Harrelson portrays his own twin brother, Chase, and expands his acting chops in a frustrating love-to-hate character.

Speaking of loving to hate, Daniel Radcliffe makes it all too easy to forget the lovable cauldron-cooker we all watched come of age.

And then of course there are Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, and what hasn’t already been said about them?

A slight twist on the first film, Now You See Me 2 cannot be expected to expand much on the original film’s premise. After all, what do a pack of Robin Hood’s do differently when there is still injustice to be fought? For that reason, any parallels to the preceding pic can be overlooked.

What cannot be overlooked is the extremely lackluster, criminally un-showmanlike title of the film, especially when considering both working titles were furlongs ahead: Now You See Me, Now You Don’t and Now You See Me: The Second Act. Thank goodness the filmmakers gave a little bit more thought to the story.

Like any good mystery, it presents the questions: who is really playing what role and who can be trusted? Some of the mysteries are, unfortunately, fairly easy to deduce. The butler did it.

What would be a saving grace in most films is actually a stumbling block for this one, and that is a lack of exposition. Without a fresh reminder of the first film’s plot points they become easily forgotten, thus causing a hindrance to fully grasping what is going on in the second film.

At its heart, Now You See Me 2 is really a heist film. Like Ocean’s 11 with sleight of hand, it entertains, intrigues and, in the end, shows us how the Horsemen pulled off their feats of derring-do. And, like any truly good magic show, it reminds us it is sometimes fun to be tricked.

Ammo Dump rating: 7 out of 10 playing cards

I’ll talk more about this film and others during my radio show every Friday afternoon at 4:10 pm. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @ALphaEXray.

Now You See Me 2
Rated PG-13
Run time: 129 minutes (2 hours 9 minutes)

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