Now You See Me 2 — The Difference of Directors
There’s something magical about a good heist, isn’t there? From Ocean’s 11 to Reservoir Dogs, the heist film genre captivates and compels audiences around the world, leaving them satisfied at the end. The same can be said for a good magic performance. Both require the performer to captivate and lead its audience along, giving them just enough information to make them think they know what’s going to happen until the very last moment. Only then is the trick revealed, or as one film calls it: the prestige.
Now a well-executed heist is all well and good, but what separates a good heist film from a great one is its characters. A great heist film has to have well-thought, well-written, and well-acted characters to keep audiences immersed in the film. Even if a film has the most detailed and amazing heist planned, if no one cares about the characters, then it might as well be a YouTube video of a Rube Goldberg machine; the intricacy is there, but there’s no heart.
The original Now You See Me was a great heist film. Though it had its flubs, the film had three strong points that elevated it from good to great: Mark Ruffalo, writer Ed Solomon, and director Louis Leterrier. But before diving into what makes these two so great, a quick warning: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT (at least for the first film).
At the end of the day a heist film is a big con. Of course the characters in the film con someone out of something, usually money, but some heist films go one step further and con the audience themselves.
The first Now You See Me focuses on the “Four Horsemen,” four low-tier magicians, played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Isla Fisher. They’re tasked to work together by the mysterious Robin Hood-esque entity known as “The Eye” to steal from a wealthy businessman and give to the poor. The businessman, played by Michael Caine, hires magic debunker Morgan Freeman to stop the Horsemen. The Four Horsemen are also pursued by Mark Ruffalo’s character Dylan Rhodes, and FBI agent who wants to stop the Horsemen from committing more crimes, or so we think.
Turns out that Mark Ruffalo has been a part of “The Eye” and that he was the one who recruited the Horsemen. Writer Ed Solomon cons the entire audience to think that the Horsemen, particularly Jesse Eisenberg’s character, were the protagonists, when in fact, it was Dylan Rhode’s story all along.
Despite knowing the twist, the first Now You See Me is still entertaining and still recommended.
Ruffalo’s performance sold the story and made the twist all the more enjoyable. From gruff FBI agent to smiling son of a magician, Ruffalo sells every second he’s on screen.
Director Louis Leterrier has a particularly great eye for this kind of film, having mostly directed action films prior to this such as The Transporter and The Incredible Hulk. A film like this needs an action director, one who knows how action pacing works and understands the kinetic energy of movement on screen. Leterrier is no Scorcese, but he knows how bodies move and how best to showcase them on the big screen.
Now, after that lengthy introduction: Now You See Me 2.
Like its predecessor, the film is well written and well performed, but there’s something different about Now You See Me 2. It still has the same strengths as the first film, but that’s kind of the problem. The strengths haven’t changed, but the problems seem somewhat more glaring in this film.
With an attempt not to spoil too much, here’s the plot.
The Four Horsemen return, led by Dylan Rhodes to attempt to expose a tech magnate of his new device: a computer chip that can break any encryption, access any database, and spy on anyone in the world. Why that wouldn’t put the magnate under immediate federal investigation notwithstanding, the heist goes south and the horsemen are exposed, including Rhodes. During their escape, the Horsemen escape pursuit and suddenly go missing, eventually ending up in Macau, China.
Thinking Morgan Freeman’s character is attempting revenge, Rhodes seeks him out in order to find the Horsemen. Meanwhile, the Horsemen are tasked by the tech magnates former partner, played by Daniel Radcliffe, to steal the chip to Radcliffe can … take over the world, maybe. It’s not clear why Radcliffe wants the chip.
Most of the cast of the first film return for the sequel and there are even some new additions. One of which is one of the film’s most egregious problems: Lizzy Caplan.
Caplan plays Lula, a replacement for the first film’s female Horseman Henley Reeves (played by Isla Fisher). While Fisher’s character wasn’t particularly stand-out, she played a good straight foil to her other three Horseman. The sequel reverses the dynamic and has Caplan be the “comic relief” while the other three act deadpan to Caplan’s “jokes.” And after watching the film, it becomes apparent that the three aren’t acting.
Caplan is painfully, woefully unfunny. Every word out of her mouth is another unfunny quip that absolutely kills the mood and drains any actual humor out of every scene she’s in. She’s from the school of comedy where the laughs come from the fact that she’s trying to make jokes that ultimately fall flat. The problem is that she succeeds too well. Andy Kaufman she is not.
Another weakness from the film comes from its principal antagonist: Walter Mabry, played by Daniel Radcliffe. Radcliffe’s performance is shaky at best. He’s set up to be the antithesis of the Horsemen, someone who despises the limelight and does not want to be seen. He pulls off the eccentric financier of the main heist of the film, as well as somewhat menacing, but there simply isn’t enough of him to make him a good villain.
The film tries a bit too much with its villains. First it’s Daniel Radcliffe, then Michael Caine returns to claim the villain role, then it goes back to Radcliffe for a bit. Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman returns as well to … It’s not entirely clear what he’s doing throughout most of the film.
All of them vie for main antagonist, which ultimately weakens each of them as credible threats.
There is definitely a lack of polish to Now You See Me 2. Sure, all the good things about the original are there, but it’s not as well put together and the acting isn’t as solid. Most of these problems have to do with the director Jon M. Chu.
To put it bluntly, Jon M. Chu is not a great director. To be fair, Laterrier isn’t that great either, but at least he has an eye for action and has a couple decent films under his belt. Chu’s greatest success prior to this film might be G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a film actor Channing Tatum is on record saying he hated being in.
What’s most baffling is, by all account, Chu should be alright at directing action. His filmography includes almost exclusively action and dance films. Although his filmography also includes Jem and the Holograms, a film that didn’t even make back its paltry $5 million budget.
Thankfully, Now You See Me 2 has the same writer, Ed Solomon, to keep the film from being a total flop.
The story is still solid. It’s paced well and has the same twists and turns as the original. While not emotionally stimulating, the film does have stunning visuals that keeps the audience captivated enough to ignore some minor story hiccups. The film does have a slight case of “too-many-twists,” but it’s a heist film involving magic, the more twists the better.
Ultimately, Now You See Me 2 is an entertaining film and a worthy sequel. It goes to show that despite the bad, despite the nonsensical, there’s still a bit of magic left in the series, and it still has prestige.