There is nothing up Judge Michael Nazarewycz's sleeve, except his arm.
The closer you look, the less you'll see.
The world of magic and magicians got its due from Hollywood in 2013 with three key releases. The first is the sublime Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, a documentary about the titular up-close magic master. The second is, well, the nowhere-near sublime The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a mess of a comedy starring Steve Carell (Crazy, Stupid Love). Rounding out the trio of films is Now You See Me, a magic-centric heist flick with more holes in it than a bad magician's unfortunate assistant.
Facts of the Case
With each receiving a mysterious tarot card as an invitation, four magicians are summoned to a New York apartment. The first invitee is J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network), the de facto leader of the group and an expert in sleight-of-hand. Next on the guest list is Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, The Hunger Games), a mentalist on the downside of a once-successful career. Third up is is Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, 21 Jump Street), an unknown street magician specializing in picking pockets. Fourth is Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher, Wedding Crashers), a beautiful redheaded escape artist and former assistant/girlfriend to Atlas. Their host is unknown, but they are brought together to join forces for a grand scheme.
Fast forward one year, and the foursome—collectively known as The Four Horsemen—are headlining their own sold-out Vegas magic show, as produced by wealthy businessman Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine, The Dark Knight). Their latest act appears to teleport an audience member to a bank in France, where that unsuspecting volunteer watches three million Euros get sucked into a large vacuum and rain down on the audience members back in Las Vegas. This is only the first in a series of elaborate (and criminal) tricks in the grand plan.
Enter FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo, Marvel's The Avengers), and Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds), who are called in to figure out all the tricks. They are helped (hindered?) by magician-turned-debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption), who has his own ties to the mysterious person who brought the Horsemen together, only he doesn't know who that person is—or does he? It goes without saying that things are never what they seem.
Many years back, David Copperfield, one of the most famous of the modern-day magicians, went on television and made a jumbo jet disappear. Today, you could take Copperfield's magic jumbo jet and fly it through the plot holes in this film.
These holes involve the Horsemen, their beginnings, their successes, and their motivation. When they first meet, they know each other, at best, by reputation (save Atlas and Reeves, who worked together). When they are mysteriously summoned to an empty apartment, they decide to…join forces to commit crimes? It doesn't make sense. To pull off the things they pull off, the level of trust they must place in each other is off the charts. It's not like The Usual Suspects, where the people teamed together already share some type of honor-among-thieves code. These are entertainers, not seasoned criminals, and yet their execution of the grandest of efforts, which would certainly take longer than one year to construct and practice, is flawless.
There is also a scene near the end of the second act when one of the Horsemen reveals another—skill?—that comes in very handy in a stressful situation. This is a cardinal sin of fiction, not just moviemaking. If you have painted yourself into a corner, you must (at best) get out some other way or (at worst) go back and establish what you need to use so there is some plausibility to it when you actually need it.
There are other examples like this throughout the film (including an unexpected love thing between two characters), but to dissect them would be to do you a disservice because of the spoiler factor.
One last thing: If the gimmick of a film is magic, the magic should be genuine. That is to say that in the portions of the film where the actors-as-magicians perform tricks, CGI should not be used, and it is. I can hear your argument: They didn't send Tom Hanks into space for Apollo 13. This is true. However, director Ron Howard used VFX to recreate what would actually happen because it was impossible to send Hanks into space. Some CGI here is used as a filmmaking shortcut. In at least one instance, it creates something that an actual magician couldn't do.
All of this is what the filmmakers seem to bank on here: that because Now You See Me is centered on magic and magicians, we will accept their shortcuts as part of the greater illusion. Even director Louis Leterrier's (Clash of the Titans) relentlessly dizzying camera movement (done to immeasurable excess, I might add) quickly becomes a distraction from what is happening in the scene being shot. Even those scenes that should be relatively docile, like an interrogation room scene, become unnecessary visual roller coaster rides. In their quest to razzle-dazzle us, the filmmakers fail to construct a plausible story to act as the backdrop for all of that trickery.
As for the principal actors—the Four Horsemen, the law leads, Caine and Freeman (sans Batman for a change)—they are well-cast for their roles and perform well across the board. The chemistry among them is there, Harrelson is the standout, and with better material and fine-tuning, this could go franchise.
You could not ask for a better technical viewing experience. For everything that is negative about Leterrier's constantly-spinning direction, his establishing shots—those sweeping exteriors taken high above the likes of Las Vegas and New York—are gorgeous postcards when shot in the day and sparkling portraits when taken at night. That 1080p imagery offers the same clarity in nearly every other shot in the film, from all distances and angles, which is especially helpful with the amount of movement his camera makes. The DTS-HD 7.1 offers an audio clarity to match its video counterpart, in particular the dialogue. This is key, given the amount of narration (explaining tricks and such) in the film. My only complaint—and it's not a technical one—is that Bryan Tyler's (Iron Man 3) score sounds better suited to an '80s TV cop drama than to this film; the action-y overture is far overused.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The extras are curious, but not so much in content as in placement. On Now You See Me (Blu-ray) is the original theatrical version of the film (which is also on the DVD) plus an extended version of the film (it has about 10 extra minutes of footage). The thorough commentary track is only available on the theatrical version on the Blu-ray. As for the others, "Now You See Me Revealed," a 15-minute interview and clipfest that is chock full of spoilers, is on both discs; while the too-brief "A Brief History of Magic," and the whopping thirteen deleted scenes are on the Blu-ray only. Of those thirteen deleted scenes, four of them are stunners, including one that should have been in the theatrical release—it would have saved a head-scratching moment at the end.
If you like high gloss, you cannot beat Now You See Me, but if you like a little substance with your image, give it a rental first before you watch your money disappear.
Magicians owe me no explanation. Filmmakers do. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
• Theatrical Cut
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