Cast your mind back to Summer, 2013, if you can. “Blurred Lines” was on the radio, Andy Murray had just won Wimbledon for the first time, and you might have popped along to the multiplex to catch Pacific Rim, Iron Man 3, Monsters University or maybe Now You See Me. Is it coming back to you? It’s that one where a bunch of stage magicians are recruited for obscure reasons to pull off a series of heists. The group consisted of hypnotist Woody Harrelson, street magician Dave Franco, arrogant ass Jesse Eisenberg, and token chick Isla Fisher. Well now they’re back, except for Isla Fisher, who has been replaced with a much-less-tokenistic Lizzy Caplan character, one with a personality and everything. The plot sees the Four Horsemen – that’s what they were called, remember – winding up in Macau (“The Vegas of China”), where Daniel Radcliffe recruits them for another convoluted heist job, in between snickering references to having learnt magic in high school. From there, they’re off for another set of twists, turns, betrayals, and weaknesses of plot that the obliging viewer politely overlooks.
Now You See Me 2 is a film insufficiently daring to name itself Now You Don’t, or even Now You See Me Too. It is a sequel in the tradition of The Hangover 2, taking a slight but likeable movie and offering up second helpings; so faithful is it to the style, the tone and the methods of the first film that one can imagine oneself, a few years down the line, struggling to remember which setpiece was in which film. Studio K/O Paper Products, predictably, wants to see Now You See Me become a franchise comparable to Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, or Star Trek, but it’s hard to imagine how many compelling stories one can really tell about an all-stage-magician team of international Robin Hoods. They’re more Ocean’s Eleven than The Avengers. Nevertheless, K/O is determined to try, so look out for Now You See Me 3 soon in a cinema near you.
Now You See Me 2’s cautious approach when it comes to new material leaves us with a film that replicates the exact merits of its predecessor. Welcome returns include the easy chemistry between frequent co-stars Harrelson and Eisenberg; a script that takes great pleasure in witty, rapid-fire dialogue, easing us through the exposition-heavy plot; a consistently taut pace despite the 130-minute runtime; a flair for elaborate visual spectacle, often realised with practical effects; and a general joie de vivre. Among the few new pleasures are Radcliffe’s gleefully punchable performance as an arrogant young tech entrepreneur, the aforementioned Caplan as mouthy, always-on comic relief, and a second Woody Harrelson, a villainous, even more absurd figure whose bouffant makes him resemble Will Ferrel’s Mugatu in Zoolander.
Happily, the sequel introduces no new flaws, but it does replicate the pre-existing ones; the preposterousness of Now You See Me is alive and well. The storytelling approach, in both films, has been to simply chuck in a twist whenever things are sagging slightly. Notably, the final twist of the first film in particular felt entirely arbitrary. In the best twist films, like The Usual Suspects or Fight Club, you can rewatch and find that knowing the ending provides a much more satisfying context to everything that you’re witnessing, while the worst twists just rob the narrative’s events of any coherence.
This has been a particular issue with the young genre of stage-magic films. The best of them, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, almost ruins its compelling story of revenge, obsession and mystery with a science-fiction ending. The idea is that a film about stage magic ought to be playing a sort of magic trick on the viewer. But stage magic plays fair; it’s always amazingly simple once you realise how the trick is done. Throwing in arbitrary, impossible twists just for the sake of “Gotcha!” is a bit like if you learnt that a stage magician had learned his craft by studying at Hogwarts. Now You See Me 2 is not a straightforward stage-magic film like The Prestige, The Illusionist or Scoop, because it mixes in elements of the heist, the superhero team-up, the conspiracy thriller, and even a little of the Bond formula, but nevertheless it can’t resist a meaningless ending which hurts both itself and, retroactively, its predecessor.
With Now You See Me 3 already in production, the ending of Now You See Me 2 is unlikely to make you leave the cinema desperate to see it unless the series can learn to tone down its own faults; however, like a real magic show, NYSM2 is a dazzling, forgettable, showy, very entertaining waste of your two hours.
Now You See Me 2 is currently open in cinemas, will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!