The warning signs for Now You See Me began right at the beginning. Before doing anything — even introducing the names of some of its lead characters — we were shown the skill that they posses. One is good at mentalism, while another’s proficient at escaping from traps Houdini-style. A group of magicians is being assembled, although exactly why won’t be clear until very late into the film. That is the “hook,” which functions as nothing of the sort, and then we fast-forward one year.
The very next scene involves a magic show at the MGM Grand. The “Four Horsemen,” as they are now called, wind up robbing a bank in France, despite their location pretty clearly being in Las Vegas. This catches the attention of an FBI Agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who is teamed with an Interpol detective, Alma Vargas (Mélanie Laurent), in an attempt to bring the magicians to justice. Of course, there’s no evidence, so the Horsemen go free just to do a similar thing at their next show. From here, Now You See Me is basically just a film of people chasing other people, with magic shows occasionally popping up to maybe keep things interesting.
So, yes, it’s a movie whose two main ideas, magic and thievery, are pushed to the sideline so that the “good guys” can be chased by the “bad guys,” or vice-versa depending on whether you’re rooting for the magicians or the FBI. We actually follow the FBI more than the magicians, especially as the film progresses. While he doesn’t get top billing, the most screen time is given to Mark Ruffalo.
Most of the magic comes during the magic shows, which is to be expected. There are just three of these, and only one of them resembles the type of show you’d actually go to see. For the other two, all we get to see are the two final tricks, both of which are big, heavily staged illusions. There’s not a lot of fun to any of these. There’s a reason that those types of tricks aren’t the focus of actual magic shows, and yet they are what we see the most of during Now You See Me. The smaller tricks, involving bubbles and bunnies, are more fun.
The screenplay, written by a trio of people, wants to keep us guessing as it plays out. Why are these magicians doing this? And for whom, if anyone? There’s a twist that you likely won’t see coming, although it’s because the film doesn’t allow us to guess. It doesn’t give us enough information, it hides things, and some of the dialogue retrospectively comes across as silly once the big reveal happens. Sure, you won’t guess it ahead of time, but it’s no fun if there’s no way for you to do so.
There is nothing to these characters. Not a single thing. There are hints of more, and perhaps in an earlier edit we’d get to explore them, but in the final cut, there isn’t any depth or growth. We learn that one, Henley (Isla Fisher), used to be an assistant for another, J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), but that’s all we learn about any of them. I mention their names only with the help of the internet; I don’t know if “Henley” was even said more than once in the film. Now You See Me isn’t a character study, nor does it want to be, but there has to be something to these people in order for us to care even a little bit.
Now You See Me is a terribly slow-paced film, especially in its first half. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a heist film with as slow an opening as this one. Even once it gets “good” — which is to say that it was no longer painful to watch — it’s still incredibly slow and dull, and save for the final twist, predictable. All the obligations are checked off. Car chase? Yes. Forced love story? You bet. Awful movie? That’s kind of how I’m feeling at this point.
The way that director Louis Leterrier has chosen to edit and shoot this movie is dizzying, and in an attempt to look “cool,” it winds up causing nausea. The constantly spinning camera, some handheld action shots which make the Bourne films look like they had a tripod — I know! — and you’ve got a style in direct opposition to the pacing, and something that adds on to an already painful experience.
If nothing else, Now You See Me will work as a reminder that even with the most talented of cast, a movie can still be a complete failure. The stars of the film include Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, and only Ruffalo is actually given something of a character — and that amounts just to a very determined FBI Agent, nothing more. Michael Caine even disappears after the first half, never to be seen from again.
Now You See Me is a very poor movie, and there’s really nothing to keep you interested for the nearly two hours it’s on the screen, save for a twist you won’t be able to figure out because the film doesn’t give you the chance. It has no real characters, a poor sense of style, an incredibly slow pace, a distinct lack of magic, and doesn’t even become watchable until after it has been playing for an hour. You have no reason to watch Now You See Me, and I definitely recommend against doing so.