If you want to see a terrific film about magic and magicians, I recommend Christopher Nolan's criminally underrated film The Prestige, which tells the story of a feud between a popular magician who specializes in showmanship (Hugh Jackman) and a struggling one who literally lives his craft (Christian Bale). The new film Now You See Me is a crime caper about a group of magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco) who pull off a series of robberies while being pursued by the FBI and Interpol, embodied by Mark Ruffalo and Inglourious Basterds' Mélanie Laurent. While The Prestige explores the craft and mindset of differing magicians, Now You See Me uses magic to justify a story that, on cursory examination, proves to be little more than smoke and mirrors. Watch my ReThink Review of Now You See Me below (transcript following).
Magic and crime capers are fun for similar reasons -- in both cases, you're watching people using cleverness and misdirection to pull off the seemingly impossible. So a movie about a group of magicians who use their skills to rob banks seems like it would be a great time at the movies. And judging from the positive reaction of the audience I was with when I saw Now You See Me, that guess was correct. But I think director Louis Leterrier actually pulled off a trick of his own, using fast editing, constantly moving cameras, and dramatic music to create the illusion of a coherent, plausible heist film.
Now You See Me starts with introductions of the four magicians. Atlas (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is a smart but arrogant street performer. Henley (played by Isla Fisher) is Atlas' former assistant who has gone on to be a successful escape artist. Merritt (played by Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist and hypnotist working at a resort, and Jack (played by Dave Franco) uses sleight of hand for petty thievery. The four of them are assembled via mysterious invitations, and a year later they resurface as a Las Vegas act calling themselves the Four Horsemen, where their big finale involves an alleged teleportation that leads to the actual disappearance of millions of Euros from a French bank.
So the FBI is called in, led by agent Dylan Rhodes (played by Mark Ruffalo), who's joined by a French Interpol agent named Alma Dray (played by Mélanie Laurent) to solve the robbery and stop two more heists the Horsemen plan to pull off during shows in New Orleans and Brooklyn. The group is also being pursued by Thaddeus Bradley, a former magician turned host (played by Morgan Freeman) with a TV show that debunks and exposes magic tricks. Michael Caine is also along for the ride as the Horsemen's benefactor.
That's quite a cast to work with, but Leterrier -- whose experience is mostly with action movies like The Transporter and Clash of the Titans -- doesn't seem to know what to do with them, and none of the characters are well developed. In fact, the only thing Leterrier seems to know how to do is go fast with constantly moving camerawork, ADHD editing, and a loud and propulsive score that keeps things zooming at a breakneck pace, perhaps with the hope that you won't have a moment to digest what's actually happening. Because if you did, you'd probably realize that the schemes the Horsemen pull off are awfully nonsensical.
And that's a real problem. The fun of Ocean's 11-style heist films is the meticulous planning of the heist, then seeing if it will succeed in the face of obstacles, accidents, and antagonists. Heist films like Now You See Me show you the successful heist, then have an investigator attempt to figure out how it was committed to catch the criminals and prevent another robbery. The problem is that as the Horsemen's robberies get bigger and bigger, the explanations of how they pull them off become sillier and more outlandish, requiring the Horsemen to have more expertise, money, time, and access than they could possibly have, to the point that they almost seem more like superheroes than magicians, ending with a reveal that's definitely a surprise in that it's so implausible that it collapses under the most cursory examination.
The filmmakers' solution to this is not to create a story that makes sense, but to simply speed through it so fast and distract you with so much sensory stimuli that you don't have a chance to think about it. It's a pretty cynical way to make a movie, but that's not to say it can't work, and the crowd I saw Now You See Me with largely thought it did. But while I consider this to be a kind of magic trick, it's a pretty crummy one. A good magic trick is one you can't figure out no matter how hard you try. A bad trick is one that dazzles you in the moment, but when you stop and think about it, you realize you were being distracted while someone picked your pocket.