Screenplay by Ed Solomon, story by Solomon and Pete Chiarelli, with characters by Boaz Yankin and Edward Ricourt
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Radcliffe, Sanaa Lathan and more
Grade: Three and a half stars
Stories can be their own kind of magic trick.
The best part of the “Now You See Me” movies is the fact that they recognize this, and construct their narratives as carefully as the best magicians do their tricks. Common narrative tropes are used as misdirects the same way that dramatic hand flourishes and spangled costumes are meant to distract the eye from the real trick being performed.
No matter how well you think you’re following what the filmmakers are doing, no matter how far in advance you think you’ve dissected the trick, it always turns out that they’re just one step ahead of you. And when that last big reveal unfolds, you realize that it all comes together in a big, beautiful shape that you somehow missed even though it was right in front of you.
It was impressive enough when they pulled the trick off in the original movie, but it’s nearly a miracle that “Now You See Me 2” comes close to matching that kind of magic. The first part of the sequel makes it seem like another “Oceans 12,” a disappointing fall from grace (both for the characters and the movie itself) after the big, glorious opening. I don't want to reveal too many details – it would be criminal if I spoiled any of the movie's surprises – but the plot unfolds in ways that are pleasant but utterly predictable.
But it’s almost as if the filmmakers knew that was exactly what we were expecting, and are using that set-up solely to lure audiences into a false sense of complacency. It's the perfect lead-up the filmmakers then used to tweak us, using a small, beautifully timed moment that's a pleasurable little shock in the sea of what you had assumed was predictability. It's not the real magic trick, oh no, but it makes you sit up and pay attention just in time for the really exciting part of the show to start.
The twists and turns are less clean and straightforward than in the original, because they're dealing with an audience that has at least some idea of what to expect. In order to counteract this they also use double-fakeouts, and set up false leads meant to draw the attention of the genre savvy.
The returning cast is as good as they were last time, with both Mark Ruffalo and Morgan Freeman getting to add new layers to their character. Woody Harrelson does double duty as both Merritt and his double-crossing brother, and he clearly has fun with both, while Jesse Eisenberg successfully guides Atlas through a key maturing moment.
Daniel Radcliffe is surprisingly entertaining (and not entirely sane) as the new villain, though early news about the movie unfortunately spoiled what should have undoubtedly been a major plot reveal. Lizzy Caplan brings an excellent energy to the team as the new female member, laying her own ground rather than trying to replicate Isla Fisher's dynamic in the original.
The end takes a knowledge of both movies to truly appreciate, and I'll definitely re-watch the first before I see the second one again to test whether they truly hold up as a single unit. Even if it turns out the two don't fit together seamlessly, however, the sequel still stands as a dazzling magic show worth watching with your own two eyes.