In magic, distraction is part of the trick.
In cinema, distraction is, well, distracting.
“Now You See Me 2” follows up the 2013 thriller with more smug characters and preposterous twists. It wouldn’t be so bad if the neat concept of world-class magicians trying to outsmart one another were given some focus, some room to breathe. Instead, action scenes are crammed together, and the camerawork is too showy. The sets are too extravagant and crowd scenes too overcrowded.
This sequel exhibits all the subtlety of Criss Angel directing a boy band video.
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“The best tricks work on many levels,” Morgan Freeman explains in the opening narration.
And there are so many levels to this convoluted narrative to summarize. But here goes:
Magic debunker Thaddeus (Freeman) sits in prison, the victim in the first movie of the renegade Four Horsemen, a slick Vegas act. They’re now composed of Danny (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Jack (Dave Franco), newcomer Lula (Lizzy Caplan) and their handler, Dylan (Mark Ruffalo), who maintains his day job as an FBI agent. They remain in hiding after becoming vigilante folk heroes for pulling off heists against corporate scumbags and returning the money to the public.
Thus, they’ve made some powerful enemies along with the law enforcement hot on their trail.
Now the Horsemen turn up to punish a billionaire responsible for launching a devious new device. Instead, they’re exposed by an unnamed adversary who forces them to steal a revolutionary piece of surveillance tech.
As the Horsemen trek from New York to Macau to London, they must determine who’s behind the ruse and what are the real stakes.
As Thaddeus says, “The eye may not lie. But don’t think for a moment it can’t be lied to.”
In its infancy, filmmaking was considered magic. But the camera tricks that initially fooled audiences in the Georges Méliès shorts of the early 1900s are now commonplace at multiplexes. This seems counterproductive for a movie showcasing magic: Mind-bending illusions are clearly done through editing or digital effects. Nobody’s fooled.
What works in the sequel? A couple of casting choices pay off.
Caplan proves more captivating than the original’s Isla Fisher, who bowed out because of her pregnancy. The “Masters of Sex” actress supplies the right mix of bravado and wide-eyed wonder, portraying an underground illusionist fond of gory special effects. Equally effective is former wizard Daniel Radcliffe as a privileged, nerdy psycho teeming with “affluenza.”
Less so is Harrelson, also playing a dual role as his character’s evil twin brother. Really. Speaking of distracting …
Behind the camera, director Jon M. Chu (the auteur of last year’s “Jem and the Holograms”) takes over for Louis Leterrier. Chu approaches the job like a tribute artist, mimicking the glossy commotion of the first picture. The plotting of Ed Solomon’s screenplay provides plenty of twisty double crosses. But the dialogue relies on characters who don’t share conversations; they divide stage patter.
Sure sounds horrible. But it’s the watchable kind of horrible that happens when talented stars and huge budgets collide with an intrinsically fun idea. In Hollywood terms, the movie is too big to completely fail.
“Now You See Me 2” frequently proves entertaining, as these skilled show-offs try to one-up one another with elaborate con games, sleight of hand and trusty old card tricks. If only the filmmakers would get out of their way.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘Now You See Me 2’
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:09.