2013’s Now You See Me was a surprise hit, a charming mix of Ocean’s Eleven and The Prestige involving a series of rob-the-rich heists performed by a group of do-gooder illusionists called the Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and Isla Fisher, who’s been replaced with Lizzy Caplan). While the idea of slick David Copperfield types using magic to pull off capers is enticing and spectacular, the first movie squandered its potential with an inane subplot about an all-seeing magic society called “The Eye,” and one of the most obnoxious film twists in recent history. (Mark Ruffalo’s skeptical protagonist is secretly the architect of the whole plan! Gotcha, moviegoers!) As with any decently-performing movie, Hollywood had to make a sequel, and while Now You See Me 2 still isn’t great, it’s much closer to the exciting roller-coaster heist film these movies could become.
This time around, the Horsemen are in hiding after their last big performance, where they exposed the crimes of magic-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and Big Business baddie Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine). In the middle of their comeback, however, they are suddenly kidnapped and brought to Macau by the bare-footed tech bro Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), who wants them to steal a magical tech MacGuffin from his former business partner. Meanwhile, FBI agent/secret Fifth Horseman Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) solicits the imprisoned Bradley’s help in finding the missing Horsemen, who are searching for a way to get back home and stop Mabry.
Surprisingly enough, there are some marginal but still noticeable stylistic improvements in the sequel. John M. Chu (a veteran of music videos and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) brings a peppy energy that Louis Leterrier’s first film lacked, especially when showing off the flashy spectacle of the Horsemen’s almost-superheroic magic abilities. Also, now that the Ruffalo-as-double-agent twist is out of the way, Now You See Me 2’s tone is refreshingly straightforward: the Horsemen take the true center stage this time, as Ruffalo provides backup while also investigating his own stale subplot about his dead dad, with Freeman in tow.
The Horsemen are actually the heroes this time – no longer are they enigmatic puppets guided covertly by the film’s lead – and it immediately makes the film more interesting. The three returning Horsemen are just as entertaining as ever, and new-girl Caplan is fantastically charismatic as the replacement Horseman. Radcliffe is fun enough as a wannabe magician and villain, but he doesn’t get much to do, particularly after another major reveal that quickly pushes him to the sidelines. The real treat, though, is giving Harrelson’s Merritt an evil twin brother named Chase, a flamboyant, veneered goof who turns out to be the villain’s magic consultant. Watching Harrelson pull double duty is Now You See Me 2’s best tricks.
Even with these improvements, the film is not without its downsides. Chief among them is its continued insistence on building the bloated lore of the Horsemen’s magic masters, The Eye. By the series’ very nature, we can never learn too much about them, so the whole thing is relegated to vague, expository patter from Chinese magicians (including a wasted Jay Chou) and a few convenient moments of magical assistance for our heroes. Ruffalo’s subplot about finding the truth behind his magician father’s death is plodding and superfluous, especially when the actor’s earnest good-guy routine doesn’t mesh well with the showy quirks of the other Horsemen. If they’d just focused on the Horsemen’s A-plot, the film could have dropped at least twenty minutes or so of its labored two-hour runtime. And the obligatory final reveal has all the pathos and dramatic tension of a Scooby-Doo episode.
Maybe that’s not the point, though. Just like a good night at a magic show, Now You See Me 2 * is an exercise in bubbly fun: watching good-looking movie stars in flashy suits trade B-level barbs in between feats of incredible showmanship, with nothing else under the surface. When it does that, it’s actually pretty entertaining. Just leave Ruffalo and the Eye out of Now You See Me 3, and a rabbit could yet be pulled out of this hat.
*Yes, we all know it should have been named Now You Don’t – Chu has said in interviews that Lionsgate wouldn’t let them call it that for branding purposes. Boo.