Remember that awesome scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker asks, “how about a magic trick?” and then slams a dude’s face down on a pencil? Watching Now You See Me 2 is a lot like being that dude. Like its bafflingly popular 2013 predecessor, this particularly unnecessary sequel immediately breaks its promise of good old-fashioned sleight of hand in favor of blunt antics that feel like a calculated effort to test just how unconvincing a movie can get away with being.
At least the first one had the element of surprise on its side, allowing audiences to sit patiently before revealing that the whole thing was building up to — ta da! — inexplicable nonsense. In contrast, NYSM2 begins with inexplicable nonsense, and it’s somehow even more explicable. The ‘lovable’ gang of magicians/thieves consisting of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Lizzy Caplan (who replaces Isla Fisher in a hilariously rushed couple of early scenes) infiltrate a tech giant’s press conference because…uh, well, because every modern blockbuster has to have a half-assed digital surveillance subplot? Our heroes, collectively known as The Four Horseman, flee the scene down a laundry shoot and come out the other end… in China.
Sure, the movie provides an explanation for this ridiculous revelation, just as it does for all its equally unbelievable occurrences. Just don’t expect convincing answers to any of it. The most absurd plot points (including how they got to China anyhow) are essentially explained away by the fact that some of the characters have hypnosis abilities that can put people to sleep instantly. This isn’t an acceptable excuse because the whole concept of magicians is that they use agility and optical illusions, not superpowers, to manipulate people and reach a desired effect. But that’s how hypnosis is presented in the movie – as a superpower. It’s not a magic trick, it’s just magic. And when our characters can seemingly use magic to get away with anything, the movie’s stakes vanish before our eyes.
It doesn’t help that the entire cast seem particularly uninterested in being on set, save for Caplan and the other new additions, Chinese actor Jay Chou and Daniel Radcliffe. Because I know he’s the one people really care about: Radcliffe does his best to act charismatic in a boring role that is worth it for the one great reference he gets to make of his time as cinema’s most iconic magic-user. Returning old people Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, meanwhile, seem particularly on-edge and impatient in their scenes, perhaps reflecting on whether or not they could have foreseen themselves settling for a script so awful back in their prime. Speaking of awful, Woody Harrelson plays a dual role this time around, acting as his own incredibly annoying twin (you know, in case you didn’t think the whole ‘suddenly, China’ thing was a dumb enough plot point). The only thing more impressive than the cast they’ve amassed here (I haven’t even mentioned Mark Ruffalo) is just how expertly the movie manages to waste it.
A magician-themed heist movie is not a bad premise for a summer blockbuster, if only the main characters acted like actual magicians. This is a glaring issue from the very first set piece, in which The Horsemen sneak into the aforementioned press conference not by using sleight of hand or illusions of any kind, but by dressing up in costumes. Not even disguises — costumes. Lizzy Caplan puts on a chef hat and apron. Dave Franco puts on a security outfit. They don’t even cover their faces, which you’d think would be priority numero uno given they’re wanted for stealing millions of dollars and, in Franco’s case, supposed to be dead. But their plan works, and they crash this super high profile event unnoticed. Similarly contrived and decidedly un-magician-like scenarios like this are commonplace throughout the script.
The sole scene that actually works does so exactly because it requires the characters to use a skill that actual magicians would use — a card trick. Sure, it’s a pretty contrived plot point that the super-important computer chip they need to sneak out of a room filled with guards just happens to be the exact size of a playing card, but what follows is a fluid, fun sequence in which the characters take turns flipping the chip in and out of sight, passing it from person to person without being seen. It is the single indication that the filmmakers actually do understand the potential of the concept they are working with, but it also highlights just how little imagination they could muster elsewhere.
Now You See Me 2 feels less like a ‘magician heist movie’ and more like just a regular heist movie with the word ‘magic’ occasionally tossed around. Categories aside, though, Now You See Me 2 is simply a bad movie. This is a lazy, cynical and unwanted cash grab that panders to an audience it sees as willing to put up with anything for the chance to be manipulated, but then proceeds to put the least amount of effort possible into its manipulation. Grating characters, horrible dialogue and unconvincing logic is one thing, but when a movie can’t come up with a single reason to exist beyond the fact that the first one made money, we’re left with something soulless as well as brainless. Turns out the most believable magic trick in the movie is the one Hollywood has pulled on us.
Score: 1.5 out of 5