Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. It is genuinely perplexing that the studio did not opt to name this film Now You Don’t. That may seem like a petty gripe at first, but in fact, it represents a great deal about what could go wrong here. Now You See Me was a surprise hit back in 2013, a fizzy slice of counter-programming that proved to be a bit more crafty than the more traditional blockbusters it played against. However, it also very much seemed like a one-off, performing its tricks and getting out before the audience started to see the strings. This creates something of an obligatory air upon entering Now You See Me 2. Sure we’ve got some fresh blood with Jon M. Chu taking over the director’s chair, and Lizzy Caplan replacing Isla Fischer but everybody else seems to be here merely because there was an ‘In Case We Get Lucky’ clause in their contract. After all, what kind of creativity can you really expect when they can’t even bother to name the thing Now You Don’t?
The story picks up roughly a year after the thieving magicians known as The Four Horsemen ripped off millions of dollars from billionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) whilst showering the bills onto their fans. Now, Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Meritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) have found themselves in hiding. Their leader, FBI mole Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) attempts to cover their tracks while still planning their next great score. When that opportunity comes, along with new team member Lula (Lizzy Caplan), the Horsemen find themselves biting off a bit more than they can chew. Transported to China and forced to work under the thumb of billionaire Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), the horseman must steal a piece of software that can hack into any computer or phone in the world.
For a movie that is all about waiting for big reveals, Now You See Me 2 shows us exactly what it is fairly early on. From the borderline laughable “Previously on Now You See Me” opening narration provided by a recently dragged out of bed Morgan Freeman, to its’ cooky opening sting, the film plays like a cartoon series adaptation of the original film. Fortunately, Chu is very aware of this shift into complete absurdity and allows the whole film to be in on the joke. Whereas the previous film was at least trying to have the audience take its borderline superhuman wizards seriously, this one simply lets us go for a ride with them, and not worry so much about where we’re ultimately headed. It may make for a lesser screenplay, but almost by accident, it has created a much more entertaining final product.
Chu, who has dabbled in the blockbuster game before with GI Joe: Retaliation, has finally found the perfect fit for his kinetic style. The action sequences here are jam-packed with quick escapes, and optical illusions and Chu’s constantly moving camera give the proceedings a constant sense of motion. While this may sound like an overblown approach on paper, Chu, for the most part, keeps the set-pieces in the perfect sweet spot between chaotic and character driven. In fact, the film’s best set-piece is more of a magical game of hot potato, with the horsemen attempting to keep a playing card with important software out of enemy hands. It’s suspenseful, beautifully shot, and above all allows the cast to have fun and not just be props in an explosion factory.
In fact, what ultimately holds this movie together is the wonderful chemistry between its stars. A major problem with the first film was in its lack of focus on The Horsemen themselves, seemingly more interested in what was going on around them. Here, we really get a feeling for who these people are, and get to see them bond as a family. You’ve got Eisenberg’s icy, arrogant wit, Franco’s pretty boy charm, Caplan for the sillier jokes, and Harrelson to seem utterly bewildered by it all. In fact, props must go to the latter two in particular. Caplan makes some truly terribly written “I’m not like other girls” shtick charming through sheer delivery, while Harrelson gets an expanded part in a way that is so cartoonish, that it doubles back in on itself and works. Radcliffe also has fun as the spoiled daddy’s boy but is also a bit underused considering his previous pedigree with magic. However, the fun does take a serious dip when we do cut away from our gang to Ruffalo and Freeman, who spend the majority of the film together. They’re given all of the same awful dialogue that everybody else is, but don’t really attempt to spin it into anything fun. They’re here to collect a check, and good on them, but it does expand the run-time of what could have really benefitted from being a leaner film.
Now You See Me 2 is about as clever as the uncle at Thanksgiving who’s still doing card tricks, and it knows that. There are no pretensions here about being anything other than a blast of dumb-fun, and frankly, it shows a whole lot of other “dumb fun” movies this summer how it’s done. Jon Chu keeps things humming along with charming characters, gleefully off the wall action scenes, and a winking sense of self-awareness that helps get through even the worst bits of Ed Solomon’s awful screenplay. It’s not a film for folks who want to poke holes in every facet of its silly little act. It is a movie for those who just want to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
It’s a proper summer movie. Finally.