At a certain point you need to accept that the Now You See Me franchise—and it most certainly has been engineered as such—is about superheroes, not magicians. Like with the first film, Jon M. Chu’s Now You See Me 2 cares little for convincing the audience that the magic being shown onscreen might be real. Erratic editing annihilates the sense of spatial awareness and disorientation so vital for successful magic. Tricks are ruined with obvious special effects and digital painting. In the most entertaining sequence, the Four Horsemen—an ersatz Avengers of the mystical who travel the world using their “powers” to expose corruption and right wrongs—sneak into a highly guarded vault to steal a prototype computer chip. In a brilliant piece of choreography, they smuggle the chip onto a playing card and shuffle it among themselves while being searched by security, throwing the card to each other behind the backs of guards, palming it, or hiding it in their clothes while being patted down. But not once do we think that any of what we’re watching might be real since many of the shots contain obvious CGI. Even if it’s only obviously faked once, the illusion that it was ever real at all is still shattered.
We watch these films not to see actual magic but for the spectacle of watching incredibly skilled professionals out-think, out-plan, and out-smart other incredibly skilled professionals. Unlike many of my film critic brethren, I thoroughly enjoyed the first film directed by Louis Leterrier. I felt it managed to compensate for its frenetic pacing, occasionally cringe-worthy special effects, and eye-rolling twist ending with superb chemistry among its leads and genuinely thrilling heist sequences. I loved the idea of the Four Horsemen being masters of four very different kinds of magic: Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), egoistic stage illusionist; Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), mentalist, hypnotist, and cold reader extraordinaire; Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), escape artist and token female; Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), small-time street hustler and wannabe big-shot.
But for the sequel things have changed. Most obviously, Fisher’s Henley has been replaced with Lizzy Caplan’s Lula, a walking, talking anti-Bechdel test who spends almost every one of her lines either hitting on the male Horsemen or smugly reminding everyone that she’s the only woman on the team. Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), the Horsemen’s mole in the FBI, has seemingly misplaced his French love interest from the first film, not even giving her the dignity of an off-hand explanation for her disappearance. Both McKinney and Wilder have been given substantial power upgrades, the former now able to hypnotize and brainwash strangers with a quick hand-motion and a few intoned words, the latter now possessed of virtual telekinesis over playing cards. Both magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and evil insurance businessman Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) return as baddies, but they’re overshadowed by Daniel Radcliffe’s giggly sociopath Walter Mabry, a tech wizard who kidnaps the Horsemen to Macau, China and forces them to enact his revenge on a former business associate. Mabry is as cartoonishly overblown as a super-villain, combining the petulance and mood swings of Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor and the daddy issues of James Franco’s Harry Osborn.
My problem with Now You See Me 2 isn’t that it tried to go bigger than the first film, but that it did so without properly thinking everything through. How could the Horsemen, among the most wanted international criminals in the world, coordinate a massive series of appearances and performances involving a small army of professional assistants, prop artists, and electrical engineers in the heart of London on New Year’s Eve? How could they travel back and forth between the States, China and Great Britain in just a few days without any passports or identification? And how does this film’s big reveal about one of the character’s true identity make any damn sense? The character is literally at a loss for words while trying to explain themselves and their motivations. The film regularly relies on the Horsemen’s uncanny knack to be in the right place at the right time so that plot convenience can weasel them out of one preposterous situation after another. The spectacle is all there. But the experience itself is as hollow as the film’s CGI playing cards.