If we subscribe to Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige line of thinking, a magic trick, like those performed in Now You See Me, should consist of three key parts. The first is ‘the pledge’ wherein we see something seemingly normal, in this case a group of rag-tag magicians brought together by a mysterious benefactor. The second is ‘the turn’ or the performance of the trick, in the Now You See Me our protagonists set about robbing from the rich to give to the poor. And the final part is of course ‘the prestige’, the final illusion that has the audience gasping with delight at what has just unfolded. Get all three acts just right and ‘hey presto’ your audience believe in magic, get one of them wrong and they’ll spot that card tucked up your sleeve a mile away.
When four talented tricksters, street magician Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), mentalist Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and pick-pocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious benefactor they form the super-collective known as The Four Horsemen. On their opening night of a sold out Las Vegas performance they manage to steal three million dollars from a bank in Paris without ever leaving the room. FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) finds himself working with Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) to stop the Horsemen from striking again. But as renowned magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) points out, The Horsemen are just getting started.
Now You See Me starts off as an unashamed Ocean’s Eleven with magicians, it even involves a replica vault at one point. As The Four Horsemen are assembled we get to see each of their unique skills as well as engaging in a fun bit of enjoyable buddy banter. Throw in Ruffalo’s moody FBI agent, with just a hint of spark between him and the always sultry Laurent, and the ingredients are set for a bit of fun. Alas the magic is not quite there. Nearly, but you feel like you can always see the strings pulling everything into place.
Perhaps not the actual strings but a whole heap of CGI, and that is Now You See Me’s biggest downfall. In a film about magic you need, well, magic. Director Louis Leterrier has clearly become too reliant on computer gimmickry with films such as The Incredible Hulk and Clash Of The Titans under his belt. The early tricks, before The Horsemen are assembled, have something Derren Brown or Dynamo about them, they’re real, tangible and exciting. But it doesn’t last long and so determined is Leterrier, and no less than five writers, to keep the audience guessing they forget to truly wow them.
That said the film remains fun and the mystery just about interesting enough to keep you guessing as to who is making these meat puppets dance. But the issues remain; who are we supposed to be routing for? Ruffalo’s agent or The Four Horsemen? We know The Horsemen are always a step ahead of both their pursuers and us and as such there’s never any peril for them. Even when one of their number appears to be in a spot of bother you never doubt that they’ll come through just fine.
But while the action often feels forced, the story getting lost behind smoke and mirrors, the cast are thankfully on fun form. Ruffalo leads the line well, his frustrated and put-upon demeanor always entertaining. Jesse Eisenberg does his cocky arrogance from The Social Network with a questionable bit of facial hair while Fisher and Franco are asked to do little more than be cocky and attractive, something which, to their credit, they both manage. Harrelson brings much of the laughs, his mentalist able to get under the skin of seemingly every character in the film. Freeman and Michael Caine are wonderfully grumpy old men and all the while Melanie Laurent remains the ever-luminous presence she has proven to be in such films as Inglorious Basterds and Beginners. So in a cast that includes 2 Oscar winners and three nominees it’s hardly surprising that the characters in Now You See Me are easily the most interesting thing on offer.
Like a magic trick obtained from a Christmas cracker Now You See Me satisfies for two-thirds before breaking and leaving you feeling more than a little cheated. If The Four Horsemen do saddle-up again, which they’re scheduled to in a planned sequel, just hope they bring more bang than fizzle.