Now You See Me 2 (2016)

06/12/2016  By  Martin R. Schneider     No comments

Now You See Me 2 takes a lot of its visual cues from two polar opposite artistic forms.

There’s influence from Rube Goldberg devices, which allow the observer to see how they work in complete detail. But it also cribs heavily from the works of M.C. Esher, whose entire purpose is that they do not function in reality no matter how much you stare at them. This is the tightrope this series has chosen to walk. If you’re trying to “beat” the movie, to figure out the tricks before it wants you to, you won’t be able to. Not because it’s difficult, but because the film openly cheats. But if, like a magic show audience, you’re willing to accept that you’re being had, bamboozled, flat-out lied to for a bit, there’s still some fun to be had.

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And what is film if not a magic trick told with cameras?

The plot of Now You See Me 2 is mostly incoherent gibberish, but it’s the kind that sounds really good when spoken in super-fast and hyperactive manner, so please read the following paragraph with Jesse Eisenberg’s voice in your head:

After 18 months in hiding, the magician-troupe-slash-wealth-distributors The Four Horsemen have reunited with newcomer Lulu (Lizzy Kaplan filling in for Isla Fisher’s role), but their reunion tour doesn’t go as planned. After having their secrets exposed on a grand scale, Lulu, Atlas (Eisenberg), Merrick (Woody Harrelson), and Jack (Dave Franco) find themselves kidnapped and caught in a game of espionage featuring a trip to Macao which I’m sure was in no way intended to make the film play better to the Chinese government. The Horsemen are blackmailed by a secretive tech billionaire (stunt-cast Daniel Radcliffe) into stealing a computer key which can spy on any computer system in the world somehow, but multiple double-crosses and betrayals put them at odds. Somehow the magician Illuminati and Merrick’s twin brother (also Harrelson, doing a weird Owen Wilson impression) are also involved. Meanwhile, the no-longer-secret Fifth Horseman FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) partners with his former enemy and famed magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) to find the other Horsemen and also avenge Dylan’s father’s death somehow even though that was literally the entire point of the first movie.

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“I’m a big deal in China!”

In its best moments, Now You See Me 2 is allowed to go into full-on Ocean’s 11 mode, full of fast-paced, ultra-slick “pulling a job” sequences which edit together multiple layers of trickery, both onscreen and behind-the-camera. The magic here is basic sleight-of-hand and quick editing, aided greatly by Eisenberg and Harrelson’s vocal vamping ability, keeping us enraptured through split-second costume changes and flashy diversions. Brian Tyler’s multi-faceted score definitely helps matters, bouncing between tension and smoothness while incorporating elements which feel natural to each scene’s setting or content. Tyler is one of the best and most underrated action music composers in the business, and here he’s allowed to show off while serving as the glue that binds the loosely-floating particles of the rest of the film.

But the reason Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films worked is that they revolved around a group of guys who acted like they were always in control but were actually constantly forced to improvise as their plans almost always fell apart. Desperation is dramatic and entertaining, that’s the key element missing from the incredibly smug first NYSM film. Here, the fun comes from seeing the Horsemen completely out of their element, forced to rely on the most basic tricks to accomplish their loosely-defined objectives. For example, the film’s most entertaining sequence comes as the crew steals the computer key, conveniently pasted on the back of a playing card. As the Horsemen are searched by security crews, they desperately use every physical trick in the magician playbook to keep the card out of sight and flick it across the room to each other unnoticed. Actual tension comes from actual stakes. Unfortunately, the movie missteps in its final act by essentially giving the Horsemen back their nearly limitless resources so that they may topple their enemies efficiently and drag us along begrudgingly.

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Not to mention the power to stop time or manipulate water or whatever the hell’s going on here.

This is essentially the curse of the entire film: It acknowledges and corrects the mistakes of the first movie, only to turn around and commit the same sins again. A great deal of lampshading is done regarding the first film’s ultimate twist and how little sense it made, but that’s diminished in the last few minutes when this movie heaps on a whole lot of nonsense itself. Even the characters are told that they’re not going to get any satisfactory answers. Somewhat less forgivable, Lizzy Kaplan is given lines highlighting how ridiculous it is that there can only be one “girl Horseman.” Other than pointing it out, nothing is done to correct this. As if to further illustrate the point, Sanaa Lathan is brought in to replace Melanie Laurent as the representation of the hilariously non-threatening law enforcement presence. (This is particularly egregious as Laurent was easily the highlight of the first film, and Lathan is given absolutely nothing to work with here.)

Essentially, if you’re the kind of person who likes movies that “answer questions” or have “narrative consistency” or “internal logic”, then maybe the Now You See Me franchise isn’t for you. There’s a certain level of bullshit tolerance you have to have to gain any enjoyment here, and it’s definitely beyond normal suspension of disbelief. But if you don’t mind the smoke-and-mirrors act, you’re treated to a double-duty Woody Harrelson performance, some very fun heist bits, and a beautifully deadpan Morgan Freeman openly playing the film’s wild card.  Building and improving upon the good-not-great roots set by its predecessor and attaching a superior director (Jem and the Holograms’ Jon M. Chu), Now You See Me 2 edges slightly closer to being the film we should have had in the first place. It would just be nice if we didn’t have to wait for a seemingly-inevitable third installment to experience something resembling satisfaction.

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Seriously, How Is This Not Named "Now You Don't"?

About Martin R. Schneider

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Martin Schneider has opinions about a lot of things, and sometimes he writes them down. But he tries not to be a douchebag about it, though.

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