Guest Movie Review: Now You See Me
Once upon a time, the entertainment world belonged to magic and its most elegant artist, the magician. For hundreds of years, magicians have used their talents at sleight of hand and conjuring of illusions to entertain everybody from the greatest kings to the sorted masses. In just the past century, men by names such as Harry Blackstone, Doug Henning and Harry Houdini have discovered fame via their legendary feats and impossible escapes. Skepticism has always been the flip-side of that fame, and this is especially true in the Internet age, when a Google search or a YouTube video can illustrate any beginner magic trick. But career magicians didn’t simply perform to put one over upon their audiences; their intent was to take even the most skeptical of minds and open it up to the possibility of something unexplainable in the universe. They wanted to create the idea that magic could be a very real thing.
That’s certainly Louis Leterrier’s intention with his latest film Now You See Me. The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans director takes a step back from the action genre with this heist movie, and what’s more interesting than his change of tack is how good the whole thing turns out. When the FBI is brought in to investigate a bank robbery in Paris, nothing looks plausible. Despite the fact that they have four suspects in the crime, four of their prime suspects are magicians (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco) – and they were in Las Vegas when the crime was committed. As part of their act, they apparently transported a man to his bank vault in France and got him to clean it out, before giving the money to their audience. Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) believes they are still responsible but remains skeptical that “magic” was really their method of execution. But without evidence beyond the mystical, he and Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (Melanie Laurent) must chase “The Four Horsemen” to their shows across the United States, and stop them from completing their big finale.
What’s so intriguing about this film is how driven the action is by the characters. Though many are stock archetypes whose actors rarely have to provide much effort, the talent of those performers means that even when they are well within the confines of their wheelhouse, they’re still excellent. These characters aren’t all true believers; Laurent’s character loves of trickery, while Ruffalo’s has an unabashed distaste of a person fooling another for entertainment or worse. Actually the two make for a nice leading pair, easily the movie’s most fleshed-out characters – and a good thing, too, since we observe the proceedings almost completely through their viewpoints. It’s a shame we can’t spend more time with the four magician-thieves, but it’s a sacrifice that allows the story to keep its secrets secret until Leterrier is ready to reveal them. With the screen-time they do get, the four actors do bang-up job. Eisenberg plays stuck-up well enough (hey, he got nominated for an Oscar for pretty much the same performance two years ago), and Isla Fisher never puts in a poor effort. The best of the Horsemen however are the wonderful Harrelson, whose ability to add levity to any situation is never in doubt; and Franco, whose physical work and likeable talents (he’s arguably better than his brother James, and definitely tries harder) make him a hero to both the denizens of his universe and an appreciative audience, who at one point will cheer at his success. Add veteran scene chewers Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, and you have an all-star cast who can move mountains to impress the director’s vision on us all.
I mentioned before how the Horsemen don’t really get a whole lot of screen-time, and while that’s definitely unfortunate in terms of watching great actors do their thing, it’s also utterly necessary. Most heist movies go through the plans for each heist in detail beforehand and then stand back and let the audience watch the crew pull it off despite whatever obstacles get in their way. Whether the film is The Dirty Dozen, Oceans 11, The Italian Job or Fast Five, the formula is practically the same. In Now You See Me, however, that mechanic is impossible; telling the plan ahead of time would destroy the illusions that sustain the movie. Instead, we’re constantly playing catch-up and marveling at the discovery of how the trick was pulled off. Sure, it means we get to see less of Woody Harrelson’s shenanigans, but on the other hand the magic is never really spoiled for us. We’re simply allowed to stand back for a bit and wonder as to how our “heroes” pulled it off. Some might think of that as the director playing us for fools, but that’s never the intention here; Leterrier just wants us to – for one moment – imagine that the impossible could in fact be reality.
Is it a perfect film? No, Leterrier makes the curious decision to employ CGI instead of practical effects at certain junctions, showing that he wasn’t quite up to the task of actual sleight-of-hand in his directorial effort. While it is very consistent and quite pretty, one has to wonder if Summit Entertainment wasn’t going to convert this film to 3D at some point, a cringe-worthy prospect if ever there was one. But beyond that and a sadly abrupt finish, this is an excellent, complicated mystery that revels in its stage theatric origins. Now You See Me starts off by presenting you with a seemingly-impossible magic trick, and then keeps you riveted to the screen for two hours of wonder, amazement and humor. Even more than Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s the best movie released so far this year. And what’s truly magical is that it might just stay atop that list for a while yet.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. You can find all of his film reviews at Hello, Mr. Anderson (http://latestissue.blogspot.com)