The best caper films keep us guessing even while we’re watching the caper in progress. In that way, NOW YOU SEE ME 2 succeeds admirably. The return of the The Horsemen, a band of underground magicians dedicated to truth, justice, and outsmarting everyone around them, including each other, provides several set pieces that are fine examples of clever misdirection and energetic staging. Fans of same will be enchanted. Fans of plot, not so much.
The tropes of the original return, along with most of the principle players. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) chafes at being forced by The Horsemen’s mysterious overseer, The Eye, to take orders from Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). Dylan, for his part, is finding it harder than ever to keep his cover as an FBI agent intact when the new people in his office (Sanaa Lathan, David Warshofsky) are less than willing to buy his unhinged obsession routine when it comes to capturing The Horsemen. Henley, the only female member of the group, has left, as explained in some blessedly brief exposition when her replacement, geek magician Lula (Lizzy Caplan), appears in Daniel’s apartment. Merritt (Woody Harrelson) and Jack (Dave Franco) are spending their downtime flicking cards and perfecting other new skills that will come in handy as the film progresses.
After a short flashback to the tragic death of a magician when his illusion goes wrong, and the role that Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) played in it, the action picks up a year or so after the end of the previous film. The Horsemen continue eluding the law while also popping up to astound their fans and make trouble for people who deserve it. Their latest target is a tech genius whose new piece of hardware, conveniently the size and shape of a playing card, removes any hope of privacy for anyone anywhere. The complicated game plan involves quick-change artistry (including breakaway shoes that have serious commercial potential), split-second timing, and the group’s gift of role-playing. Alas, they are not as in control as they thought they were, thanks to the FBI, an estranged twin, and a fan of magic with an agenda and the money to make it happen.
That would be in the neon kaleidoscope of Macao, where they are tasked with stealing that hardware by Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), an owlish eccentric who worships the talent of The Horsemen, but is fine with snuffing them out if he doesn’t get his way. Soon they are visiting the oldest magic shop in the world, finessing an impossible theft using only their sleight-of-hand, precision wire-work, and pure guts, before running into a few old acquaintances that are happier to see them than the other way around.
The tone is giddy, with the group bantering among themselves with extreme prejudice. They have charm, to be sure, and look believable as they go through their paces with the necessary insouciant charisma, but even they cannot make this thin material work.
As for the ci-mentioned tropes, they include big, sometimes literally splashy, stunts that are nifty enough to survive even when (almost) all their secrets are given away. One of the best things about the film is that it knows when to leave us hanging about how Daniel disappears leaving only his trademark hoodie. On the downside, it’s also light on coherent plot. The word perfunctory comes to mind, and as a fatal kiss of death for a film of this ilk, predictable. On the other hand, if you think about it as a martial arts flick, with illusions substituting for flying fists of fury, it almost works. Certainly there is something very satisfying about watching Eisenberg embrace his character’s ego and talent with an introvert’s swagger and barbed ripostes.
Unfortunately, Radcliffe’s puerile charm as the billionaire with ulterior motives and a plate of petit fours always at hand quickly wears thin. As does the cutesy conceit of Merritt and his effete twin brother that takes sibling rivalry to very dark places. Ruffalo is tasked with the most difficult role, playing straight drama for long stretches before returning to the cotton-candy that is the film’s raison d’être. The film missteps in going there at all, but Ruffalo’s gift for emotional resonance stands him in good stead.
NOW YOU SEE ME 2 is a title that smacks of a wistful entreaty. This is a glib effort that barely hangs together as it tries to misdirect our attention away from the fact that this a progression of flash, dazzle, fizzle.