"Now You See Me 2" Is The Sequel Fans Deserve

When Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic was pioneering computer-generated effects on 20th century masterpieces “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park,” he couldn’t have imagined the heights to which the technology would soar in mere decades; how it would usher in all new ways of storytelling. Another thing Muren probably didn’t have in mind: rubbery computer-generated playing cards pointlessly ricocheting in and out of sleeves in one the worst excuses for a heist scene ever. This is “Now You See Me 2,” an orgy of ugly special effects, nonsensical plotting, and dopey performances. A movie that dares to ask: “Why give life to exciting things like dinosaurs and starships when you can do it with playing cards?”

Now You See Me” director Louis Leterrier has stepped aside for Jon M. Chu (“G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” so you know you’re in good hands), but the sequel makes all the mistakes of its predecessor plus some new ones. It continues to conflate magical realism with street and stage magic (two distinctly different things) while having nothing interesting to say about either of them.

The Four Horsemen are back, a quartet of world-famous magicians once again tangled up in a web of globetrotting intrigue ostensibly set in the real world but having no discernible traces of it. There’s Danny (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Jack (Dave Franco), and new member Lula (Lizzy Caplan, stepping in for Isla Fisher), each of whose defining characteristic is that they look remarkably like the actor playing them. There’s also FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who may or may not be the fifth Horseman, and magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), wrongfully imprisoned since the events of the previous film.

The story involves bratty trust fund kid Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) kidnapping the Horsemen and forcing them to do his bidding, but mostly it’s about our leads doing impossible things that are supposed to look cool. What they’re actually doing betrays the very idea of their profession.

Magic endures as entertainment precisely because it’s not real. Street and stage magic is about making the impossible seem possible, not actually making it possible. This is something that screenwriter Ed Solomon either does not understand or actively despises, his screenplay cursing the very existence of logic at every senseless turn.

Inane script notwithstanding, there are many other bad movie signposts within. Firstly, the performers are clearly at odds over what kind of movie they’re in. Eisenberg, Franco, and Ruffalo continue to play things painfully straight, while Caplan and Radcliffe relish their dialogue like they’re slurping actual relish off a Chicago Dog. Caplan’s performance is of the nails-on-chalkboard variety, but at least she makes it her own. She’s having fun. Conversely, Eisenberg (hot off “Batman V Superman”) has apparently decided that he’ll have nothing to do with fun ever again, vacuum-sealing his performance free of personality.

Then there’s Woody Harrelson. Not only is Woody tasked with playing against a brick wall in Eisenberg, it turns out that his character has an evil twin brother. Yes! With fake teeth, bad wig, and dreadful vocal lilt in tow, Woody plays Merritt’s twin Chase like he’s in the worst Farrelly brothers movie never made. It’s nearly horrific enough to suggest the movie knows how bad it is, but Harrelson is so obviously uncomfortable that the performance ends up more awkward than endearing.

To top it all off, hypnotism is used a major narrative device, adding to the feeling that any character can do or be made to do anything because no laws apply to this cinematic universe. Nothing is metaphysically impossible; nothing is too mundane to become CGI fodder; nothing is too stupid to commit to screen.

By the time Michael Caine reprises his role of insurance magnate Arthur Tressler at the film’s hour mark (for absolutely no reason at all), you might wonder if the filmmakers mistook the definition of “escapism” as moviegoers not looking to escape the doldrums but the theater they’re in. Whether or not this makes for the sequel “Now You See Me” fans want, it’s certainly the one they deserve.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: June 10, 2016
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenwriters: Ed Solomon
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, David Washofsky, Tsai Chin, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence and some language)