This summer, one of the big blockbuster films that had been expected to do impressive business was Will Smith’s After Earth; when that rather emphatically died a death at the box office, it left a hole in the cinemagoers’ calendar that allowed a rather different film to pop up from under the radar and replace it, attracting an audience and ultimately doing the sort of business that has Hollywood executives asking “What the hell just happened, and how do we copy it?”
The film in question was the heist/con movie Now You See Me, which while far from being any sort of low-budget art-house flick was also not expected to be one of the bigger films of the year; a solid midfield performer, if you like. A lot of people (critics especially) were rather sniffy about it, but it pulled in the audience because it was just a likeable, fun flick with few expectations pre-heaped on it. Being quite a fan of heist/con movies (Ocean’s 11 is one of my favourite films) I was keen to see this one to see if it would deliver or disappoint; the fact that the con is mixed with magic and illusion was undoubtedly a double lure for me. (Full disclosure: my uncle is a professional magician working in the US, which makes me very susceptible to falling under the spell of a magic performance.)
While I’m certainly not going to make any claims for this film being a great piece of cinema or anything other than a glitzy piece of shiny nonsense, the fact is that I liked it. Okay, loved it. And not just a little – I had a smile plastered on my face for almost the entire two-hour running time. I can’t remember the last time that I watched a film that I simply enjoyed for the pure pleasure and fun of it nearly as much as I did this one. Possibly not since the aforementioned Ocean’s 11, in fact.
The story centres on four magicians who team up under the stage name of The Four Horsemen and proceed to grab the headlines and FBI attention with their act that involves taking a lot of money from one set of people and giving it away for free to their audience. There’s Daniel Atlas (The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg) who is a David Copperfield-type front man; escapologist Henley Reeves (The Great Gatsby’s Isla Fisher); mind reader/hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and ex-street hustler and pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, younger brother of James). They’re bankrolled by billionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and scrutinised by magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who is helpfully on hand to explain how the tricks are done to FBI agents Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Fuller (Michael Kelly) as well as the Interpol agent imposed on them (Alma Dray, played by Mélanie Laurent). There’s also the hint that there’s a Fifth Horseman, a brains behind the grand plan – but who he or she is, and what that plan is, are deftly hidden in plain sight until late in the film.
It’s a big name cast, then – maybe not quite of the star mega-wattage as Ocean’s 11 but pretty decent all the same. All the cast is very well chosen and give very good performances without exception, and moreover it becomes a thoroughly likeable ensemble in which everyone genuinely seems to be having fun doing what they’re doing. By the end you’re just having just as much fun simply watching them do their individual schtick, the magicians running rings around the FBI and Rhodes and his team getting comedically exasperated by being made to look fools at every turn. If you’re still in the dark by the time the film finally spills its secret, then you have to credit the movie’s grifter skills that it’s using with an ebullient flourish on the audience: as one of my favourite sayings goes, “if you look around and can’t tell who the mark is, then the mark is you,” and that’s never truer than a film with no greater ambition than hoodwinking its viewers with a grin on its face and a twinkle in the eye.
It’s all helped by the look and feel of the film, which is as glossy and shiny as the magicians’ stage act and chooses some great locations in which to play out the action (Vegas is always terrific, and few locations have the on-screen appeal of New Orleans even before we arrive in New York; and there’s a brief moment in Paris as well.) The action set pieces are varied and pleasingly mixed up, so while there might be a car chase, a foot chase and a fight scene, etc. they never outstay their welcome and quickly move on to some entirely new shiny distraction to tempt us with. Director Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2, Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk) keeps things moving on briskly but never makes it feel unreasonably rushed – just enough to hide the inevitable gaps and leaps in the story logic – and the screenplay by Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakin keeps the wisecracks and revelations coming at a very satisfying rate of notes almost to the very end. It does run out of steam a little in the last ten to 15 minutes but not enough to do any great harm to the overall success of the film.
Among those less sold on the film than myself, one of the big quibbles has been that the magic displayed here is not ‘real’ (now there’s a non sequitur for you!) in that it’s not actually physically possible. While it’s true that some of the side tricks are augmented to a greater or lesser degree by filmmaking tricks and a dollop of CGI and green screen, what impressed me about the film is that the main tricks – the ones really important to the storyline – actually do play generally fair with the audience. The initial trick of how the Four Horsemen rob a bank in Paris from a stage in Las Vegas is almost entirely guessable no matter how outlandish the set-up involving teleportation appears. It’s also pleasing to see the young central cast members do a lot of their own prestidigitation for real in front of the cameras. As for the rest – well, it’s a movie, not a documentary or a live stage show and we’re allowed to make things sparkle that bit brighter with a little harmless cheating in this context. Just put it down to movie magic instead.
You could argue that the plans of the Fifth Horseman are so susceptible to unforeseen and unpredictable events out of his or her control that it couldn’t possibly work. But then we live in an era packed full of master criminals with almost supernatural power to control proceedings (from Hannibal Lector to Skyfall’s Silva) so this is really little different and not a criticism with which you can score many points. The acid test is that it’s still possible to work out who’s behind it all and what they’re doing, even if it might not make absolute sense if you start micro-analysing every event – but then, where’s the fun in that? Few films can stand up to that sort of obsessive scrutiny, even the classics.
Make no mistake about this film: it’s a big sparkly bauble that will hold your delighted attention for just about exactly two hours but will thereafter melt away with no more nutritional value to it than candy floss. And you know what, that’s fine by me: not everything has to be dark and important and meaningful. Sometimes we just want to have fun, and for me at least Now You See Me delivered exactly that.
On the Blu-ray: There are two cuts of the film, the theatrical and an extended edition running 11 minutes longer. The high definition picture is terrific and the sound is one of the better balanced tracks that never had me straining to pick out the dialogue no matter how big and loud the explosions were. A special mention for a very appealing score by Brian Tyler as well. Extras-wise, there’s an audio commentary from producer Bobby Cohen and Director Louis Lettelier, some electronic press kit pieces for ‘making of’ and ‘the history of magic,’ and some deleted scenes and trailers. Solid, but nothing special.
Now available on DVD, Blu-ray and on-demand streaming.