Now You See Me 2 (shockingly not subtitled Now You Don’t) is not a film to go to if you’re seeking themes. Or characters. Or storytelling. Or coherence. If anything, it is even less full of those characteristics than the first film, which was already teetering on the edge of full-fledged absurdity (and, with the flurry of last act twists, absolutely falls into that pit). It is not subtle, it is not nuanced, it is not restrained. No, Now You See Me 2 exists to deliver precisely two things: quips and twists. It’s a bonkers, ridiculous, nonsensical film that completely dances on your suspension of disbelief, seemingly for the fun of it, and doesn’t politely ask you so much as directly tell you that you will be along for the ride. It’s cheesy, overlong, illogical, showy, and above all an absolute mess. And I’d be hard pressed to tell you a better excuse to pay for overpriced popcorn and a matinee ticket.
The plot (what little I can describe without incredible detail to explain every twist and turn) focuses on The Horsemen, a Robin Hood-like gang of magician (like stage magic, hypnotism, sleight of hand) thieves who are organized by The Eye, an underground secret society of magicians who have set out to do good in the world. If you needed to define “high concept” to someone, this would be a good place to start. These Horsemen, played by Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, and newcomer Lizzy Caplan, under direction of an FBI agent played by Mark Ruffalo (who is also a secret underground magician on the sly), end up in the crosshairs of Daniel Radcliffe, playing a very rich man who faked his own death and wants to steal a piece of proprietary technology. Morgan Freeman is there too, gamboling about as Mark Ruffalo’s father’s skeptic rival (Mark Ruffalo’s father was also a magician) who Mark Ruffalo framed to put in prison in the first film because of his possible involvement with Ruffalo’s father’s death. Also, Woody Harrelson plays a dual role, moonlighting as his twin brother who has a terrible wig and a goofy (yet evil) disposition.
Got all that? Because it only gets more complicated from there. In nearly every scene something happens that changes how everything else in the movie is viewed, and it becomes such a barrage of intricate, over-plotted horseshit that it either wins you over or you go insane. It’s committed to this momentum, and it refuses to be stopped. That, indeed, is what makes it so damn entertaining. It’s not afraid to look foolish, a trait it definitely shares with director Jon M. Chu’s previous film, last year’s absolutely stunning Jem and the Holograms. And like that film, it revels in its own preposterous nature, because it wants above all else to be fun. People don’t always need logic in their escapism. Sometimes, it’s enough to show them images audacious enough in their artificiality to be strangely beautiful. Sometimes, it’s enough to whip the audience between set-pieces and amusing repartee, turning up the speed of Joss Whedon’s by now tired quippery until it’s almost too fast to keep up with. It’s all jokes and card tricks and CGI assisted illusions so absurd that they move past elaborate and impeccably set-up stage magic and become, well, literal magic, until you’re left exhausted but satisfied at the end.
And it’s to the credit of the actors involved that they really sell this material, everyone bringing their A-game (meaning: they commit fully to the silliest things and disimbue themselves of self-respect). Special credit should be given to Lizzy Caplan, who replaced Isla Fisher’s character from the first film but slots in perfectly, perhaps even more perfectly than Fisher herself did (a tall order). She gets all the best lines and puts them across with gusto, ingratiating herself and winning what I thought coming in would be a very difficult uphill battle. Radcliffe, as well, leans into a sniveling rich boy creepiness, and Harrelson is a delight playing off himself, two different but both hilarious varieties of “I’m tired and I don’t need this shit.” The only real weak link is Dave Franco, which isn’t really any fault of his, but someone’s gotta be the straight man in this comedy quartet and he at least deserves a nod for the thankless work involved.
Now You See Me 2 isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it shouldn’t have to. What it accomplishes is a rather unnoticed task of simply making blockbuster cinema almost naively fun, in the same way the National Treasure movies did (and in the same ways the first one of those is a minor classic). In a world of cinematic universes, bombastic, Bay-influenced chaos, and over-serious grimdark edgelord fan-service, it’s a breath of fresh air to just be able to enjoy myself while watching a film, to be swept up in movie logic, to actually smile for once at the things I’m seeing. Jon M. Chu, as much as the ever-wonderful Fast and Furious series, is a stylistic mutt of an auteur keeping things from getting too heavy in the summer movie marketplace. The magician’s trick is to elegantly misdirect your attention so you don’t notice when the trick is actually happening; Now You See Me 2‘s trick is to throw so many misdirects your way that you don’t much care whether you’re keeping up.
Now You See Me 2 is currently playing.
Directed by Jon M. Chu; written by Ed Solomon, Pete Chiarelli, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt; starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Radcliffe, and Morgan Freeman; 129 minutes.