The Reel: ‘Now You See Me’ a divergent summer caper

Ben Conniff

We’ve seen the tricks up Christopher Nolan’s sleeves with his spellbinding magic-thriller The Prestige, and we’ve seen what Neil Burger (Limitless) can pull out of his hat with his engrossing period piece The Illusionist.

Director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Transporter 2) now faces the task of wowing audiences with his cinematic prestidigitation.

While Nolan and Berger elected to set their films near the turn of the 20th century, Leterrier’s Now You See Me puts a contemporary spin on the magic-caper. It follows a crack team of federal agents (led by Mark Ruffalo) as they track and attempt to expose “The Four Horsemen,” a group of illusionists (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) who pull off bank heists during their shows and reward their audiences with the money.

It’s a fascinating premise from writers Ed Solomon (Men In Black), Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) and first-timer Edward Ricourt that doesn’t feel squandered, even if the Horsemen’s final act is slightly anticlimactic. The narrative of Now You See Me features plenty of twists, but it remains comprehensible enough so that it doesn’t burn the audience out like a stack of flash paper money. It’s consistently paced thanks to the enthralling, albeit far-fetched, illusions of the magicians. Witty performances from the all-star cast and a handful of chase sequences also add to the appeal.

It’s easy to forgive a movie’s shortcomings when the cast includes Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo. Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher and Franco comprise “the Four Horsemen.” All of their characters come off as a bit pretentious, but it’s hard to tear yourself away from them. When they aren’t busy hilariously bickering with each other, they’re always moving and doing something different in order to keep themselves a step ahead of the law. Staying engaged in order to see what they do next is always a treat.

Ruffalo and French actress Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) play the agents hot on the tails of the “Four Horsemen.” As Agent Rhodes, Ruffalo’s persona deteriorates right up until the film’s climax, looking, sounding and feeling every bit like the Tom who’s worse for wear against a foursome of Jerrys in this cat-and-mouse caper. Laurent balances the scale against Ruffalo as Interpol agent Alma Dray. She lightens up the mood whenever Rhodes is down, yet she’s fully capable of holding her own and contributing to the case. Rhodes and Dray are easily the film’s two deepest characters.

Freeman plays Thaddeus Bradley, a personality who debunks magic acts on his television show. The FBI enlists his expertise to figure out how the “Four Horsemen” are able to rob banks without ever leaving the theater. Caine stars as Arthur Tressler, the wealthy benefactor to the “Four Horsemen.” Freeman’s is the more fleshed-out character of the two, but neither should be considered “bone-deep” or the performance of anyone’s career. The magnetic personalities of Caine and Freeman are what keep their characters afloat. In lesser hands, it’d be easy to forget that Bradley and Tressler are pertinent to the story.

The scenes involving the Horsemen’s shows are the most diverting of the film, but like all magic, it’s necessary to suspend disbelief in order to be drawn in. They perform three shows: Act I, Act II and Act III, all of which occur in different cities. Act III takes place in New York City and features the hokiest stunts of the film. But there are some fun chase sequences peppered throughout; the car chase in New York and the foot chase through Mardi Gras in New Orleans are the most impressive.

As with The Prestige and The Illusionist, Now You See Me feels like you’re stuck in the middle of a magic act the entire time; like you’re being strung along only to be duped by the Horsemen’s next play. That’s something a magic-caper like this should be commended for.

My only major gripe is that it’s difficult to decide which set of characters is really the center of attention within the story. With a seemingly equal amount of screen time for both the magicians and the FBI agents, Now You See Me loses a step in terms of focus. But both sets of characters reach satisfying outcomes. That is, all apparent loose ends seem to be tied up by the movie’s end.

Despite a slight lack of focus and relatively thin characters, Leterrier’s Now You See Me gets an ample boost from captivating set pieces and the magnetic personalities in its cast. This film is a welcome addition to the mystical-thriller genre that includes the likes of Nolan’s The Prestige and serves as a fresh, original diversion in this superhero-saturated summer.