by Steve Habrat
French director Louis Leterrier is the type of guy who makes movies that you watch on HBO. They’re the stuff of sweatpants and lazy Sunday afternoons when you have absolutely nothing else pressing to do. You really don’t have to put your brain to work when you watch any of his movies; you just have to be in the mood to watch some slick action scenes guided by Jason Statham or Jet Li. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really enjoy seeing his full-throttle Marvel offering The Incredible Hulk on the big screen. The last time we saw Leterrier, he was tangling with the gods in 2010s Clash of the Titans, a film that was met with almost unanimous negative criticism. Now Letterier returns with the Ocean’s Eleven-with-a-wand studio boardroom crime caper Now You See Me, a fairly entertaining but poorly drawn action-heist hybrid that seems tailor-made for Twittering teens and those audience members out there who are easily impressed with even the slightest plot twist. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, in fact Now You See Me is a fun and simple distraction, yet it feels like the type of movie that you watch on HBO on a lazy Sunday. Now You See Me has plenty of snappy action, a plot comprised of infinite plot twists, and cool performances from a mixture of veterans and newcomers, but it lacks substantial character development and the blue-in-the-face exposition bogs down the third act. Leterrier makes damn sure no one walks away scratching their head and asking their date what the hell just happened.
Now You See Me introduces us to four street magicians, Daniel Atlas (played by Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt Osbourne (played by Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (played by Isla Fisher), and Jack Wilder (played by Dave Franco), who are brought together by a mysterious hooded figure and one year later are performing as “The Four Horsemen” in Las Vegas. The group, who has become a huge worldwide sensation, announce one evening that they are going to rob a bank with the help of one lucky audience member. The man who is chosen to help out with the trick is seemingly teleported to his bank in Paris, where he is asked to activate a vacuum that sucks the money from the vault and dumps it down on the cheering Vegas crowd. The stunt, which captures the world’s attention and turns “The Four Horsemen” into media superstars, immediately gets the attention of bullheaded FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (played by Mark Ruffalo) and his new partner, Interpol Agent Alma Vargas (played by Mélanie Laurent). Rhodes and Vargas immediately have the four magicians arrested, but lack of an explanation forces the FBI to release the group. After the group performs another robbery in New Orleans, this time on their sponsor, Arthur Tressler (played by Michael Caine), Rhodes and Vargas are forced to seek help from ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (played by Morgan Freeman), who makes a living revealing the secrets behind magic tricks.
After giving us a brief introduction to each of its characters and their different illusion styles, you begin to think that Now You See Me may just decide to operate in a much more grounded sense. However, this sense of grounded realism disappears completely when the ragtag group is pulled from the streets and united in front of blueprint holograms that look like they were confiscated from Tony Stark’s workshop. Not one of the characters bats an eye or thinks to really ask who has brought them all together. From here on out, Now You See Me goes huge with its magic tricks and its fiery action, all of which completely incinerate character development. While the magic show sequences thrill with their flashing strobe lights, easy-laugh host dialogue, and pounding techno, the real razzle dazzle comes in the middle with its foot chases through thick Mardi Gras crowds, fist fights in cramped New York City apartments, and jittery car chases through stuffy NYC traffic. It is all the usual stuff you want from Leterrier and, more importantly, a summer blockbuster, but you can’t shake the feeling that it is all scaled back fluff that would appear in a late summer toss-offs rather than a frontline May effort.
Much like Ocean’s Eleven, Leterrier puts together a who’s-who of talent to rope in audiences. The leader of the pack is Eisenberg, who proved his acting talents in David Fincher’s staggering The Social Network. He certainly brings some of the self-assured swagger that he applied to Mark Zuckerberg and for the most part it works, but the character is too poorly drawn to be much of a hero here. Eisenberg certainly tries with the character, but he isn’t given much to work with so he just shrugs his shoulders. This phoned-in feeling unfortunately doesn’t begin and end with Mr. Eisenberg. Harrelson is his usual kooky self as the swindler hypnotist Merritt. He’s another one you expect some heavy lifting from but he doesn’t break much of a sweat. The young Dave Franco (yes, it is the brother of James) seems eager to get people talking, but the script gives him so little to do, the half the time you forget he is even there. Franco gets most of the action scenes and you do get the impression that he could be a future action star, but only time will tell. Fisher is here simply to give the film so much needed sex appeal but even she seems like she is checking her watch over really putting forth much effort. Caine and Freeman both give the typical performance that you’d expect. They seem to be getting a big kick out of the whole thing, which adds some charm to the film. Laurent basically steals the show as the sweet Interpol Agent who is driven by faith. She balances out the almost-too-serious Ruffalo, who seems like he is trying to make up for everyone who is here just for a beefy paycheck.
While Now You See Me is light on its feet, fast-paced, and fairly exciting, the film really deflates when all the smoke and mirrors are pulled away. There is really nothing behind all those wonderful tricks. The characters don’t really develop and Leterrier tacks on a long-winded and rigid explanation at the end of the film when all of the action should have smoothly meshed together. Instead, it just seems all over the place and in a mad dash. It almost feels like the filmmakers don’t really trust the audience to put it all together so they just do it for you. Also, I’m still not sure that they really sold me on the myriad of twists that hit at the end but the crowd I saw it with was marveling like crazy at it. Overall, as an Ocean’s Eleven knock-off, Now You See Me entertains, but it lacks a certain martini buzz strut and tuxedo-cool confidence to really keep it aloft. It comes off plastic and artificial, with only a smidgeon of heart inside that pretty cool premise. If I were you, I’d probably wait for it to come to HBO and watch it from the comfort of your couch. It’s small screen entertainment from beginning to end, but there isn’t particularly anything wrong with that.