This movie is shockingly bad.
That’s not hyperbole; when I watched the first Now You See Me I was shocked at how bad it was, with the structure of the movie and its general incompetence creating this sort of impossibly tangled mess of failure. To describe the plot of that movie is to rush past constant cul-de-sacs of narrative failure, an act of will that requires you to treat the movie as if it’s better than it actually is, because of its bottomless well of failures. Now You See Me 2 takes that bottomless well of failure and installs a sub-basement, in all the ways that unnecessary sequels do.
This original movie was terrible, and this movie is aggressively worse.
The plot, such as we’ll be kind enough to call it, of Now You See Me 2 is that the five magicians of Now You See Me have gathered together again to do… something, a heist that’s pretty much just there to be a thing they fail at. Then, they’re magically transported to Macau, where they have to do a different heist in the name of keeping Evil Daniel Radcliffe from murdering them. It’s your classic ‘oh no, we aren’t as good as the first movie made us look’ sequel material. It’s extremely tedious, especially since the whole structure of the movie relies on you knowing these characters are magicians and every single time they look like they’re in trouble, they actually aren’t, resulting in anti-tension the longer the movie goes.
Part of the novelty of this movie is seeing the actors that don’t consider this pile of mush beneath them and who can have some fun – oh hi, Michael Caine (c’mon man, you were in The Prestige). Jesse Eisenberg continues being the most hateable man in cinema reprising the role of a character who is meant to have stage presence, Dave Franco is the Hot Young One (We Will Remind You That He’s Hot (Can We Find Something For Him To Do At Some Point?)), and then there’s Mark Ruffalo, who it seems through sheer happenstance only appears in roles I hate. Oo, oo, but so does Woody Harrelson, playing Merrit McKinney, an actual fucking wizard. He’s terrible, just the kind of odious awfulness that oozes against the surfaces he’s near, that transphobic joke from the first movie now feeling the kind of thing he genuinely does find funny, and in this movie they for some fucking reason decide what we need is two Woody Harrelsons, so his twin brother gets involved.
It’s amazing, this movie centres around four characters who are men and they’re all the worst one.
That of course excepts Lizzy Kaplan’s Lula, she’s just here to be our We Have Isla Fisher At Home, and it’s not like the movie was going to do anything with Isla Fisher in the first place, based entirely on the first movie’s complete antipathy to a woman character having an inner life. The first movie really didn’t have anything for Isla Fisher to do that worked well with her, and hey, what do we have for Lizzy Kaplain? Just as much nothing. The big thing she does here is bluff her way past someone who is trying to let her into a room, and remove her bra.
The movie is so bad I find myself negotiating with it, as if to say ‘well, no, that specific sequence is pretty cool,’ but they mostly just remind me of actually good magicians doing actual tricks without a camera, without cuts, and without literal control of the entire audience. This is nowhere more evident than in the dramatic cardistry sequence that defines the peak of the movie, where a card is swapped from person to person across the whole troupe, with improvisation and distractions to try and get this card past what looks like… mid to low level security.
Anyway, this whole movie shows the artifice at the heart of movie making; they never show you things as they happen, but tell you afterwards, so there are two twists in this movie that require you to go ‘oh, wait, really?’ and just accept it. They’re cheap and hacky, and because there’s no sense this movie is ever going to play fair with you, it’s just ‘and now something you had no reason to know.’ What’s more, it’s stuff where knowing it makes all the proceeding movie worse, because suddenly a character was holding some really important and useful information for a completely stupid hackoff reason. They have a character quote a ‘very important’ magician who impelled them to become a magician, and rather than any of the luminaries, any of the greats, they quote their own made-up character, and the quote isn’t even that good.
There’s this recurrent theme of ‘science vs magic’ which is stunning bullshit. I don’t know any magician, any magical performer, who thinks negatively of science – their entire job relies on them knowing how things actually work, things the world can do without you necessarily thinking of them doing it. It’s the science of controlling attention. In this movie, though, ‘magic’ is ‘performed’ with super-science gizmos that ‘put brains into an alpha state,’ which –
Hypnotism, in this movie, is wizardry. There’s some also total bullshit with a rain machine too, where from a thousand uncontrolled angles, Jesse Eisenberg No You Don’t Get Your Character’s Name You Smear makes the rain fly upwards, with ‘strobe lights’ and like, at a certain point, you’re just inventing bullshit a character can do because you can fake it on a sound stage. This movie makes magic performances into actual wizardry, while also throwing in this weird idea of ‘true magic’ that isn’t ever explained.
Hypnotism is a difficult craft, and mentalism is also one, and in both cases, they are reliant on a lot of uncontrolled factors. Specifically, hypnotism is largely an art of finding people who are amenable to hypnotism and pushing their buttons in a way that makes them think they’re being hypnotised. It’s a remarkable social tool, it’s not telepathic coercion.
They do use that to set up one pretty good joke, though.
Alright, I hated this terrible movie with its dreadful characters that use cheap tricks to fake their way through a narrative that promises taut and clever structure. Whatever. Let’s talk instead about how these magicians are, themselves, awful magicians.
See, there is a principle I want to talk about here when it comes to magic, and what you’ll find with almost all magicians, a principle established by Harry Houdini is that magic should not be dangerous. That the audience are a component of the act, a reason to do the act, and therefore, any trick that is dangerous or has potential to cause harm is therefore implicating the audience in a morally dubious act. Penn Jillette has expanded on this: I will not do any trick that’s more dangerous than sitting on my couch. That’s important, it means that any design has to incorporate failsafes and failsafes for failsafes and cutoffs and trapdoors and systems to ensure that at no point are you at more risk than you are on your sofa.
Good magicians don’t endanger people.
The magic done, in this movie, regularly and repeatedly, is dangerous. They commandeer public spaces, they use systems without control over who might get involved, they gather people close for tricks that had to involve potentially dangerous systems, and of course, they also are doing these magic tricks in ways that can cause serious trauma and harm to strangers.
These people are bad magicians — not just in the way that the movie can’t depict them doing real tricks, even with a fixed perspective and the power of editing, no. It’s that even if they’re doing what they’re depicted as doing, they’re doing it in a way that magicians should not countenance, because they treat audiences (a precious thing) as if their feelings and attention and safety are not worthy of respect.
It’s tedious shit.
It does magic badly, it does characters badly, it doesn’t respect the audience or the art or storytelling.
It made $334 million and is getting a sequel and a spinoff TV series.