I’ve always been a interested in stage magic. Every since I saw my first bit of slight of hand when I was a kid, I wanted to know more about it. That made me a wee bit annoying for, say, local magicians playing birthday parties and community events. Especially once I figured out how some of the tricks were done. (I still take great pride in figuring out how the tricks are done, but now I’m much better about keeping my mouth shut and letting people just enjoy the show.)
Over the years, I’ve also come to really enjoy heist movies and, to a lesser extent, real life stories of creative robberies (be they successful or amazing failures).
Now You See Me (I watched the extended cut) blends both of those interests together in a reasonable entertaining way. Not flawless, but it’s a fun ride.
[There are going to be some serious spoilers after “The Plot” section here. So, if you plan to see the movie, you may want to skip down to “The Verdict” after you get a taste for the plot. Or, y’know, just go watch the movie now, then we can share the secrets together.]
Four stage magicians with disparate personalities, styles, and levels of success are called together by a mysterious figure. A year later, now calling themselves The Four Horsemen, they cap off their biggest show ever in Vegas by staging a bank robbery… of a bank in France… without leaving the stage.
This puts them on the radar of the FBI and INTERPOL and catches the attention of a former magician who now makes his money exposing how tricks are done.
Two more “impossible” heists follow, always with the Horsemen at least two steps ahead of the law, and everything culminates in the revelation of the true reason behind all the spectacle… and, maybe, some magic more real than mere stage illusion.
The cast plays super well off one another–which is something you can always expect from the likes of Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, and we know what we’re getting when Woody Harrelson and Jessie Eisenberg take the screen together–with the scripted rivalries and repartee really fleshing out the depth of the story, even without additional exposition.
There are twists and turns, but most of them make perfect sense and flow very well.
The Illusion of Sensibility
[This would be the part where there are spoilers… if you’re going to see this movie, skip this.]
As I said, I’m a bit of a fan of stage magic. Illusion and misdirection are natural components to good storytelling–be it dramatic or comedic–so a movie about stage magicians (technically, one egotistical illusionist, one snarky escape artist, one bastard of a mentalist, and one up and coming slight of hand/pickpocket close up guy) should be full of both. This movie is. And most of it works.
For some reason, despite the truly amazing things that modern illusionists pull of on a regular basis, the filmmakers decided to go with a lot of CGI and genuinely impossible tricks. For example, there’s one sequence where Henly jumps into a bubble that Atlas has produced and floats out over the crowd. That… was silly. Neat looking, but silly. As was the case of the CGI swooping curtains that lead to the reveal of the “teleportation” machine.
You wouldn’t necessarily expect it, but things that fantastical broke the illusion of the movie more than anything else.
The biggest issue, though–the thing that breaks the overall sensibility of the movie the most–is the big twist. When we find out that it’s Rhodes, the FBI agent who’s been chasing the Horsemen, who’s actually the ultimate mastermind behind everything so much of what we’ve seen him do on screen up to that point is just made ridiculous. It coms out of nowhere so much, it’s kind of disappointing.
Now, don’t get me wrong–the Count of Monte Cristo level decades-long plotting of revenge is awesome and well played–but the near complete lack of hints that this is the guy behind it all, when the rest of the movie is so well plotted, placed, and revealed feels out of place.
If there had been just one time, when only the audience was seeing what Rhodes was doing, that he broke character, that would have been something. Instead, what we got was a guy who was always “on”, going so far as to go out and get drunk, alone, after apparently failing–even though that “failure” was an integral part of his long-term plan. What we got was a guy who, when he’s privately told that his INTERPOL partner is likely the mastermind, flies off the handle at her, much to everyone else’s confusion, even though he knows, without a doubt, that she’s not involved.
The actual reveal itself is done amazingly, so it took a minute for that bad aftertaste to roll in. But once it did, it burned a lot of goodwill and made me not like the movie as much as I had been.
One other, comparatively minor, thing… the movie never really seems to have decided if real magic is a thing in this world. The vast majority of what goes on can be explained by more or less contemporary techniques–sometimes pushed a bit into scifi levels, but still recognizable and sensible enough for movie use. But, every now and then (like that floating bubble bit, perhaps.. definitely the end of the film) there seems to be the heavy suggestion that there is, indeed, something paranormal going on, some sort of real magic being used to literally bend the rules of reality.
Maybe that gets explored more in the sequel… maybe not. I haven’t seen it yet.
If nothing else, this movie is a fun ride with solid characters working will off of one another.
Most of the stage performances that go on evoke the best of the modern magic institution, while some of the plot points dig at the dark and problematic side of those same talents for showmanship. There’s definitely a lot of moral gray area to think about.
Ultimately, I do think most people will enjoy this film. It’s fun most of the time, stylish all of the time, and, generally, plays well. The pacing is very good, and I watched the extended cut… so I’d imagine the regular cut is even tighter.
If, like me, you’re a fan of illusionists and their ilk, you’ll recognize some very familiar types. All of the psychology that comes into play is pretty much textbook–and applied with great effect by Harrelson’s mentalist character. Almost all the set-ups play through in satisfying and sensible ways.
If you don’t care much for even mild fantasy in your caper flicks, then you should probably skip this. It will annoy you at times. It will make you roll your eyes and possibly throw things at the screen as they roll back and show what “really happened” in previous scenes.
Overall, I really look forward to getting around to the sequel… and there’s a third on the horizon.