“You may not be having fun, but I am”
The problem with giving a film steeped in misdirection a sequel is that the mysteries have already been uncovered. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle to achieve the same success. Now You See Me had a great magic premise wherein the theatrical audience was as in the dark as the fictional audience attending The Four Horsemen’s performances. We knew something big was happening, but weren’t privy to the plan. We watched the intrigue, received truth from an illusion-debunker, and readied for the moderately suspenseful reveal of their puppet master. Sequel screenwriters Ed Solomon and Peter Chiarelli look to initially recreate this game before knowingly throwing in a wrench to flip it upside-down. Meant to provide new life, it screeches the action to a halt instead.
Three years ago the trick was on those who played roles in the death of renowned magician Lionel Shrike (currently played by Richard Laing via flashback with Elias Koteas not reprising his silent role). The Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg‘s J. Daniel Atlas, Woody Harrelson‘s Merritt McKinny, Dave Franco‘s Jack Wilder, and Isla Fisher‘s Henley) were recruited to rob a bank, bankrupt a millionaire, and imprison a “murderer”. They succeed alongside the stunning if non-crucial discovery that the FBI agent on their tail (Mark Ruffalo‘s Dylan Rhodes) was Shrike’s son and orchestrator of everything. The obvious progression would be reuniting the team a year later for a new elaborate trick sanctioned by magician consortium “The Eye”. After a lengthy training period off-screen, we’d now see the fruits of their labor.
But this isn’t what happens. Now You See Me 2 alternatively decides to make the Horsemen (Rhodes included) the mark this time so the magicians can be magicianed. It’s as unwieldy as that sounds too because we don’t care about the predator who’s ensnared them (Daniel Radcliffe‘s Walter Mabry, sociopath bastard son to Michael Caine‘s Arthur Tressler) and he abhors the idea of magic itself when science is so much better. So do we invest in his payback, the Horsemen’s plight, or the “Eye’s” omniscience that likely has a hand in every aspect of the plot? And now that the original’s debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) is in prison, who will tell us how the tricks are tricking us? The logistics are chaotic, the scope implausibly dull.
Add the fact that the FBI is still on the hunt—now chasing one of their own—and our attention is divided three-fold rather than two with our “heroes” being those without power. Dissention has also overtaken their ranks with Rhodes positioned as irrelevant, Atlas intent on wresting away control, and Merritt and Jack unsure of their places on the team. Henley is gone (Fisher’s pregnancy caused her to bow out) and is replaced by Lizzy Caplan‘s Lula, a blatant attempt at over-the-top comic relief that’s too loud and obnoxious to take seriously in the group. Suddenly the dry cynical sarcasm is gone as boisterousness arrives to “entertain”. The characters themselves become the distraction, the filmmakers hoping we miss how sloppy and uninteresting their twists and turns prove.
The “magic” is rendered as science fiction, not slight-of-hand. And instead of having Thaddeus go step by step through each trick’s process, we now have the magicians explaining their own by saying little more than what was used rather than how it was done. Franco plays with a New Age Creations fountain in an ancient Macau magic shop with water bubbles floating into the air and thirty-minutes later Eisenberg uses the same technology for a massive illusion wherein he stops rain drops mid-air. How does he do it? “Wind fans, rain machines, and strobe lights.” Um, that’s a grocery list, not a reveal. Were the screenwriters lazy or did director Jon M. Chu have to make cuts? Maybe the trick is impossible and we’re supposed to not care.
Sorry, I do care. No matter how outlandish things got in the first movie, the magic was explained with varying levels of acceptance. Now we’re supposed to simply trust “it could happen” because we’re not supposed to be bothered when so much “great” action is happening in the meantime? Well, a ten-minute game of keep-away with a playing card the Horsemen whip through the air at each other isn’t stimulating action. It begins nicely with the actors having to bend the card in their hands while holding tiny corners, but the game quickly devolves into computer-generated views down sleeves and camouflage suit liners. The reaction shots of skeptical adversaries become laughable and the scene goes on and on. There’s no trick, no allure, and no excitement.
Mabry’s quote at the top of this review: “You may not be having fun, but I am” pretty much encapsulates Now You See Me 2 because while the characters are enjoying themselves, the audience isn’t. Thaddeus is now an ominous enigma rather than no-nonsense capitalist, Tressler a homicidal maniac with no regard for human life, and Rhodes’ smartest man in the room little more than an afterthought caught afraid and out of sorts. The Horsemen are pawns reacting instead of performing, periphery characters are cardboard, and only Radcliffe appears to understand the film shouldn’t be taken so seriously. We didn’t actually care about Atlas and company before, just the endgame of their actions. “Deaths” served the plot. Now we’re supposed to worry about their safety? No.
The entire goal of the first is thrown out for cheap tricks (why did Harrelson agree to play his character’s twin when the thankless role of mentalist for the bad guys is made stupider by the gimmick) and overlong action hinging on humor rather than intellect. It’s deflection upon deflection without mystery because the whole thing is Mabry versus Horsemen. There’s no bigger goal than survival, no hook besides flashy graphics as hollow as the CGI. Magic should awe us and nothing here does because there is no stage, no performance. Something happens and it’s explained with intentional silliness almost instantaneously. Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt built a plot around magic while Solomon simply throws magic onto a mediocre heist script. The chasm between these intentions is vast.
 Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, left) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, right) in NOW YOU SEE ME 2. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment
 Daniel Radcliffe stars as ‘Walter Mabry’ in NOW YOU SEE ME 2. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment
 Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, far left), J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, center left), Lula (Lizzy Caplan, center right) and Allen Scott-Frank (Henry Lloyd-Hughes, far right) in NOW YOU SEE ME 2. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment