Francis Ford Coppola once said, “I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.” Coppola speaks the truth. Many of cinema’s first auteurs, including Georges Méliès (the subject of Martin Scorsese’s delightful Hugo), began their careers as stage magicians and illusionists. It’s probably where the term “movie magic” originated from too because let’s face it, movies are by design magic tricks, especially in today’s CGI-dependent industry.
With this deep-rooted connection, you’d think movies about magic would be a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood. On the contrary, they’re very hard to come by. Pretending that March’s middling bomb The Incredible Burt Wonderstone doesn’t exist, Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me is the first big studio magician film since Christopher Nolan’s meticulously-crafted puzzle piece The Prestige in 2006. Whereas Nolan’s film was a brooding character piece about obsession and ambition, Now You See Me is a flashy, brisk, and light-hearted caper where chase sequences and spectacle take precedence over character, plot and even logic.
The set-up is intriguing. Four street-level magicians, fast-talking slight-of-hand specialist Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), washed-up mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), gifted escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fischer), and burgeoning illusionist cum pick-pocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, younger brother of James) are drawn together by a mystery benefactor with a promise of a life-altering experience. A year later, the foursome are now going by the moniker The Four Horsemen and headlining a major Vegas act financed by billionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine).
On their first night, the Four Horsemen perform a trick where they rob a bank in Paris and then proceed to gift the stolen money to the audience at the show in Vegas. When the vault in Paris turns out to be gutted for real, the FBI sends in agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and French Interpol agent Alma Drey (Melanie Laurent). When their interrogation of the Horsemen leads to a dead-end, Rhodes and Alma are forced to elicit the help of slimy magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who claims he can solve the mystery.
Revealing the mystery of how the Horsemen pull off their intricate robberies is something Leterrier, who also directed the Transporter movies, The Incredible Hulk, and Clash of the Titans, reveals a flair for. His experience with high-octane action films serves him well during the film’s flashy heist and action sequences. They tend to be the best scenes in the film. He even manages to get likeable performances from his star-studded cast.
But for all its pleasures, the success of Now You See Me ultimately lies, like all mysteries, in the characters, their motivations and the big payoff, which is where Now You See Me fizzles. The mystery of who these people are, why they partake in these convoluted heists, and what they stand to gain from them are questions Leterrier, and screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt never seem interested in. These questions are instead thrown on the back-burner in favor of comedy and superfluous chase sequences from Las Vegas to New York, most which end with Ruffalo’s Rhodes character being hilariously one-upped and frustrated by the crew.
Unsurprisingly, he’s the character who gets most of the screen time as we watch him fumble, bumble and make funny faces as the Horsemen outwit him every step of the way. A lot of it is played for laughs but Ruffalo, an incredibly likeable presence, always gives Rhodes an endearing quality. The film even hints at a possible romance with Laurent’s character. Coupled with the screenplay’s lack of interest in exploring the motivations of the magicians, or even who they are, it’s never clear who we’re supposed to be rooting for – the likeable cops or the enigmatic magicians.
Since the film muddles up character, all we have to work with is the convoluted mystery plot, which when revealed, can either be seen as disingenuous, or at worst preposterous. It’s a resolution that is frankly, insulting and a cheat. One of the running themes of Now You See Me is “The closer you look, the less you’ll see.” It’s an apt tagline for the film because despite a charming cast, a brisk runtime, and flashy thrills, there’s nothing below its surface. The more you think back on the film, the more it crumbles into a casserole of nonsense. So take it for what it is… piffle.