Death, The Lover, The Hermit and The High Priestess are all waiting for a stranger to let them inside a dingy New York apartment. Sounds like the set-up to a very niche joke, but it’s actually the ending of the prologue to the magic oriented thriller Now You See Me. The prologue wastes no time in establishing its principle characters – four talented magicians – amidst a flurry of fascinating illusions, before they’re all brought together. And that’s when the action really begins.
On face value, the best thing about Now You See Me is, without a doubt, the magic tricks; partly because they’re brilliantly realised from a visual point of view, and partly because the show what the film’s strongest asset really is. Now You See Me unfolds like a magic trick. It may not used the three-act magic trick structure that’s dissected in detail in Christopher Nolan’s magician thriller The Prestige, but instead, what it does is establish it’s own views on magic. According to Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) magic is “controlled deception, designed for entertainment”, and this is how the magic of the film unfolds. It challenges you to try and deconstruct the tricks, and figure out the next step in the grand illusion that the Four Horsemen (the stage name of the four magician once they’re working together) are planning.
The Four Horsemen themselves are played by Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco, and fortunately, their chemistry together, both when they’re performing magic and when they’re performing illusions on stage and when they’re not, is excellent. They deliver dialogue at pace, never missing a beat, and while none of the performances are exactly exemplary, they all seem to bring out a nice element of each other as performers. Harrelson steals scenes, as he always does, and Fisher has screen presence in spades (her chemistry with Eisenberg is particular highlight, and their exchanges are always great). Unfortunately, the Four Horsemen are just the tip of the iceberg in an ensemble that features a few more principle characters, which is what presents the first major fault in Now You See Me; it often feels a little muddled and unsure of itself. We’re presented with an FBI agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo, who slurs a lot of his dialogue for no real reason) who’s on the trail of the Horsemen and the crimes they commit during their shows (but going into them now would be a major spoiler), but the film never really seems to want us to side with anyone. It’s heroes and villains seem to get confused amidst the razzle dazzle of the film. Between that and the way Rhodes becomes the audience, in that the magic tricks are revealed to him, both for the benefit of the investigation, and for the audience as well, it seems like Now You See Me just doesn’t know how to treat its audience, falling into exposition-heavy pitfalls that plague summer blockbusters as they try and coast by on special effects and more style than substance.
Now, while Now You See Me has style in abundance, from its magic tricks to its fast paced (if at times irritatingly kinetic) camerawork, that’s not to say there isn’t more going on beneath the surface. It’s unsure treatment of its audience aside, it’s actively engaging in a unique way, as you try and stay a step ahead of what’s on screen, but remember “the more you think you see, the easier it will be to fool you.”
I feel I almost need to applaud the ambition of this film; as I’ve mention a couple of times, it’s actively engaging in a way that most summer blockbusters aren’t, and even if it’s reach exceeds its grasp at times, with an exposition heavy final act that seems to bring twists and turns out of nowhere (even though most of them have more than satisfactory explanations), the narrative is told at a breakneck pace – not a second is wasted, and almost everything on screen is important in some way – and doesn’t have any point sub-plots or filler characters. It’s only real problem is muddled points of view; from the grand robberies that take place on stage, it feels like the Four Horsemen could be a group of Robin Hood’s for the Occupy generation, but instead their motivations seem muddled and arbitrary.
It’s bold and filled with flash, but the most pleasantly surprising thing about Now You See Me is, for all of that, and the twists and turns that are thrown out with reckless abandon, there’s some substance there, as four totally different characters are brought together by something. What that something is might not be too important after all, especially after the man behind the curtain is revealed, but there’s genuine character development. If it didn’t get so lost in its own tricks now and then, it’d be pretty tough to fault, but the four magicians perform with gusto and sell the whole thing well. Now You See Me is a refreshing and engaging blockbuster that’s a much needed breath of fresh air.