All flash but no substance in ‘Now You See Me’ |

All flash but no substance in ‘Now You See Me’

Richard Roeper
Universal Press Syndicate
This film image released by Summit Entertainment shows Jesse Eisenberg in a scene from "Now You See Me." (AP Photo/ Summit Entertainment, Barry Wetcher)
AP | Summit Entertainment

The first few scenes of “Now You See Me” deliver the promise of the best film about magic since the release of two meticulously crafted and thoroughly entertaining 2006 films: “The Prestige” and “The Illusionist.”

In a series of quick and neatly wrapped sequences, we see four tricksters plying their trades (and don’t blame me for their comic-book names):

Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) entertains a crowd (and seduces a babe) with a simple card trick that pays off in spectacular fashion.

Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a self-proclaimed mentalist of the highest order, blackmails a philandering husband right in front of the man’s hypnotized wife, who will remember nothing once she snaps back to full consciousness.

Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) entertains the crowd on a ferry and fleeces the guy who THINKS he busted Jack. (Dave Franco looks so much like James Franco he could be James Franco’s younger brother, which he is.)

And Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) pulls off a daring, Houdini-esque stunt with a literally bloody payoff.

Whether working the streets or onstage, they’re all quite good in very different ways — and they’ve all been recruited by a mysterious unknown to pull off some of the most audacious stunts in the history of deception.

They’re going to rob banks and fleece billionaires through the art of magic.

The premise is intriguing as hell, but given that nearly every movie we see these days includes CGI tricks and special-effect illusions, can a film ABOUT magicians truly dazzle us?

Maybe so, but “Now You See Me” is not that movie.

Calling themselves “The Four Horsemen,” the quartet pulls off a seemingly impossible feat. While onstage in Las Vegas, in front of a crowd of thousands, they rob a bank — in Paris. It has to be an illusion, of course, and yet the money in the real bank in Paris is really gone.

Enter Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), an FBI agent who comes across more like an undercover cop, what with his unkempt appearance and rules-bucking attitude. At first he’s reluctant to take the case because he thinks it’s a joke, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because it’s clearly a SPECTACULAR case, but soon Rhodes is obsessed with bringing down the cocky Daniel and his gang of merry illusionists.

Assisting Rhodes is Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent from “Inglourious Basterds”), a beautiful Interpol detective. Meanwhile, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) is a world-renowned debunker out to discredit The Four Horsemen, while Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) is the wealthy peacock funding the quartet’s elaborate stunts. This makes for a very crowded movie, filled with twists and turns that often result in dead ends.

There’s also a lot of talk about some mythical and mystical Eye with a capital E, and we’re constantly challenged to look beyond the surface. Who’s really pulling the strings, and for whom exactly are we supposed to be rooting?

The structural problems with “Now You See Me” go beyond the illusions that really aren’t all that spectacular when you take a step back and think about it — especially when we’re given some beyond-ridiculous explanations for certain stunts, including a car chase sequence that casually endangers the lives of dozens of motorists who couldn’t possibly be involved in the scheme.

We spend more time with the FBI agent and the Interpol investigator than we do with the illusionists, so we don’t really empathize with the fast-talking Daniel or the semi-creepy Merritt or the other two Horsemen, who are even less developed as characters. When the big reveals start coming, either we’re not surprised or we don’t care — or both.

This is a slick con, all flash and no substance. “Now You See Me” seems awfully sure of itself, with self-important, intrusive music, sweeping tracking shots and actors chewing up the scenery. Ultimately, there’s no there there. By the time it’s over, we’re left with more questions than answers — and even more damning, we don’t care all that much about those unanswered questions.

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