Rare is the modern magician movie that isn’t really a con-man movie in disguise, in which everything is but one mere flashback away from not being what it seems, cashing in emotional stakes for logical sneaks. Louis Leterrier’s “Now You See Me” is no exception, with one character repeatedly reminding us and his on-screen marks alike that “the closer you think you are, the less you will actually see.”
That character would be sleight-of-hand artist J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), who has been teamed up with mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and daredevil Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) by a mysterious benefactor. A year later, they emerge as Vegas’ hottest new act, the Four Horsemen, and proceed to carry out full-blown heists before a paying audience. Owner Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) is stumped; debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) is intrigued; and FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), paired off with Interpol’s Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent), is pissed at both how sly and smug these culprits are proving to be.
As written by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt, the film itself is sly and smug in kind, fleetingly enjoyable for all of its old-school showmanship and high-tech hokiness when not paying lip service to our lapsed need for classic wonderment and constantly drawing attention to the fact that you shan't dare fall for what you’re seeing at any given moment. Director Leterrier (“The Transporter,” “The Incredible Hulk”) tends to traffic in the perfectly watchable and dutifully keeps the plates spinning here, even if Ruffalo’s gruff skeptic routine gets old quick, Caine and Freeman’s sage-off bears little fruit, and an energetic apartment fight and subsequent car chase feel singularly devoted to landing Franco his own Bourne-like franchise.
While Franco and the others get along cattily enough in their scenes together, the Horsemen are a team of card-tossing, modern-day Robin Hoods who ultimately prove to be about as elusive as their shadowy puppet master, whose own elaborate machinations and misdirections require both incredible foresight and a remarkable amount of wealth. Then again, we all remember that Arthur C. Clarke line about how any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it’s tempting to chalk the predetermined razzle-dazzle of it all up to a slightly shinier sleight-of-hand for the digital age.
Admittedly, in spite of the film’s insistent reminders and my own raised guard, I nonetheless found myself bested by its final reveal. Does the moment itself constitute a great twist, and “Now You See Me” a brilliantly crafted puzzle by extension? Hardly. The whole of it is made of flash paper, intended to burn brightly for an instant before vanishing from your memory without a trace.
SCORE: 7.2 / 10