Besides clowns, magicians have the misfortune of being everyone’s least favorite entertainers. They are often cheesy, tacky, deceptive and, above all else, sequined. However, with a dynamic plot as his cape and a star-studded cast as his wand, director Louis Leterrier takes this tired image and makes it disappear. “Now You See Me” puts a magical spin on the typical summer caper. The film follows FBI Special Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) as he attempts to expose and take down an alliance of the world’s best magicians, known as The Four Horsemen. The unlikely Robin Hoods of illusion pull off a series of robberies during their performances, wherein they steal from the corrupt and shower the money down on their misused audiences. With the help of French Interpol agent Alma Vargas (Melanie Laurent) and ex-magician-turned-fraud-exposer Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), Rhodes struggles to keep up with the magicians in an elaborate game of cat and mouse.
Jesse Eisenberg plays J. Daniel Atlas, the arrogant yet brilliant leader of the group, whose mastery of illusion propels the plot and leaves the on-screen (and offscreen) audience baffled. Woody Harrelson is Merritt McKinney, a devious mentalist who uses the power of hypnosis both to get inside Rhodes’ head and to trick others into playing along with the heists. Isla Fisher stuns as Henley Reeves, an escape artist, while Dave Franco rounds out the group as a pickpocket named Jack Wilder, whose only real screen time consists of an excellently choreographed fight scene with Ruffalo.
Leterrier spends very little time developing the characters of the Four Horsemen, leaving a void that is just barely filled by revered movie veterans Freeman and Michael Caine as Arthur Tressler, a greedy insurance man. Even still, the pair’s frosty on-screen relationship in “Now You See Me” does little but prove that we’re not in Gotham anymore. Caine’s character is completely superfluous and seems to have been written in purely as a means to pack more star power into the already impressive ensemble.
The real magic of “Now You See Me” is the magic itself. The Four Horsemen are no regular birthday party magicians; their tricks are mystifying, death-defying and stupefying. Agent Rhodes quickly realizes that the key to solving the crime is to work backward and unlock the secrets of the group’s allusions. Bradley, who has made a living by exposing stage magicians as “two-bit hustlers,” helps to demystify what at first appears to be magic by revealing the technical know-how and subtle deceptions that go into every grand illusion. These sequences of revelation, designed in part by the film’s magician consultant, David Kwong, are some of the strongest in the film. Leterrier spills some secrets of the trade (like using highly flammable flash paper to make fake money) but also legitimizes the art of stage magic by showing just how much cleverness goes into crafting a great illusion.
“Now You See Me” has everything a good summer movie needs: big stars, big thrills and big explosions — all without the tirelessly sarcastic one-liners that often seem to make up the bulk of the dialogue in similar films. The originality of Boaz Yatkin, Edward Ricourt and Ed Solomon’s screenplay takes what at first sounds like a silly premise for a film (bank robbing magicians? Really?) and turns it into an exciting look into the world of stage magic. Unfortunately, the story line weakens significantly in the third act, leading to a somewhat unsatisfying ending to an otherwise enjoyable film. However, the magicians’ mantra repeated throughout the film — “the closer you look, the less you see” — suggests that “Now You See Me” is a film best enjoyed when taken at face value.