Playing like The Prestige wrapped in slick Italian Job styling, Now You See Me offers a glitzy caper flick that quite literally challenges us to keep up. Whether you enjoy trying to figure out how the trick is done or simply prefer to bask in its glorious effect, if magic intrigues you even a little, you’re in for a treat.
Here we meet four master practitioners, each gifted with a trademark talent: illusionist J. Daniel Atlas (Jessie Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and sleight-of-hand trickster Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). As individuals they impress (or infuriate, if you’re the often-unfortunate subject), but they are about to dazzle.
Summoned to a secret meeting (by the requisite mysterious hooded figure), they fall quickly into petty professional bickering. This promptly gives way to astonishment, however, as before them unfolds instruction for a trick the likes of which has never been seen. Three acts, three heists, and admission into magic’s elite upper echelon. All they have to do is join forces and follow directions.
Fast forward one year, first stop Vegas, where the Four Horseman rob a Parisian bank in real time and rain the proceeds upon the audience. This of course rankles the FBI, represented by lead agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). Rhodes has time for neither magical shenanigans nor an unwelcome French partner courtesy of Interpol (Mélanie Laurent). But he has plenty of time for catching felons – if he can keep up with them.
You can’t blame him for feeling outmatched. It’s no small task pursuing the Horsemen across three states amid high-speed chases, fight techniques that seem to defy physics, and interruptions by people acting out post-hypnotic suggestion. And then there’s the confounding “fifth person” behind the scenes. Rhodes must get a step ahead, and his ability to do so is called into question, in so many words, by rogue magician turned FBI consultant Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman).
Daniel Atlas tells Rhodes early on that the first rule of magic is to always be the smartest guy in the room. Atlas also tells Rhodes – and us – to come in close, as close as we possibly can, to get right up against him, in fact, because the more we think we see, the easier it’ll be to fool us.
And that’s the great fun of Now You See Me. It hammers us with these principles on myriad occasions and we know what we’re supposed to be doing. Looking not at what’s going on but at what’s actually underway. Keeping the wider, longer view in mind, vs. the trick before our eyes. But just as the Horsemen’s misdirections challenge Rhodes within the story, Louis Leterrier’s sweeping direction, Amundsen and Fong’s vibrant cinematography, and Brian Tyler’s consuming score challenge us precisely the same way as we experience the film itself. As their skills swirl relentlessly around us, we’re swept into the pageantry and right where the filmmakers would have us.
Where challenge represents the film’s strength, Now You See Me’s weakness would land in its characterizations. While each role serves the larger purpose effectively, none is particularly well developed and relies entirely on actor portrayal and ensemble chemistry.
Best suited to bringing at least some nuance are Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. Eisenberg crisply reincarnates his Mark Zukerberg persona from The Social Network, landing as insufferably arrogant, snarky, and overbearing. And in a enjoyable counterpoint, Woody Harrelson delivers his standard wry, crafty, Cheshire cat mischief, which here is particularly effective when applied to hypnotist Merritt McKinney.
Merritt enjoys a penchant for incorporating a little ethical payback into his routines, in one case rendering a woman mute as he exposes her husband’s affair, and helps himself to the contents of the man’s wallet in exchange for wiping her memory. (There’s more, and it’s delicious, but I won’t ruin it for you). Harrelson’s performance doesn’t surprise us, but it’s the perfect surprise to his unwitting and eminently deserving quarries.
The two titans, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine as Four Horsemen underwriter Arthur Tressler, simply show up and do their familiar excellent work. We’ve seen these portrayals a million times before, but they’re effective enough. Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, and Melanie Laurent, unfortunately, are relegated to mere plot device functionality. They do perfectly well at what’s required, but it isn’t much: basically just look great while uttering words that move the plot forward.
It’s Mark Ruffalo that does Now You See Me’s heavy lifting, and does so beautifully. As Rhodes faces bewilderment, exasperation, and often rage at the enormity of the struggle he’s been dealt, Ruffalo carries our own bewilderment and wonder. He provides the one steady thread that keeps us oriented – as oriented as we can be, at any rate – amid the spectacular, inexorable march of the Horsemen.
As the illusionists hint to Rhodes at every turn, so does Now You See Me hint to us. Unlike Thaddeus Bradley, I’ll never give away the magicians’ secrets, but simply echo his words: “The closer you are, the less you’ll actually see.”
Packed with twists and turns, Now You See Me ties the loose ends nicely. A second viewing will tell if they’re woven to perfection, but in any case it hangs together beautifully and keeps us guessing to the last.
Whether you strive to keep up, or simply bask in the effect, Now You See Me is a treat. It’s good Summer fun and will no doubt keep you entertained with its wit, originality and always surprising plot.
Quick-witted and original, Now You See Me offers an entertaining twist to the classic caper flick.