One of the oldest maxims in magic is you never do the same trick twice. You can fool an audience the first time, when they don’t know where the slight of hand is coming from or how, but after that, spectators are looking too closely to be fooled so easily. As entertaining as Now You See Me 2 is — and it truly is — it’s also convincing proof that twice can be one time too many.
Now You See Me was a heist movie rejiggered with magicians. Part of what made it work, besides its handily capable cast, was the breathtaking whimsy with which is tackled its set pieces. Two-thirds illusion and one-third “peek behind the curtain,” it made you feel you were in on the trickery with the magicians, only to ultimately pull the rug out from under you in the final act.
The ending of Now You See Me was so eye-rollingly unbelievable, it worked, on a sublime level that practically defies logic or criticism. A large reason it survived its preposterous final twist is simply because of how well it earned it over the course of the preceding movie.
Now You See Me 2 doesn’t earn its absurd climax, but rather feels entitled to it and that audiences should accept it simply because it’s fun and entertaining. Now You See Me asked you to suspend every facet of disbelief for its last five minutes; Now You See Me 2 requires it for a solid half-hour.
After pulling off three Robin Hood-worthy heists in the first movie, the magician collective known to the world as the Four Horsemen — including Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) — have been in hiding for a year, trusting in the mastermind who brought them together in the first movie and forced them underground.
The other Horseman, played the first time around by Isla Fisher, has since given up waiting, but new addition Lula May (Lizzy Caplan) brings the total back up to four for a big reveal at a tech launch that’s meant to double as an act of sabotage on anti-privacy and their grand return.
When everything goes belly up, the Horsemen find themselves mystified when they jump from a rooftop in New York City and land in Macau, the kidnapping victims of a maniacal billionaire (Daniel Radcliffe) who faked his own death year earlier, to pull the strings behind tech companies completely off the grid. He needs the Horsemen to pull off the heist of a tightly guarded microchip, because who better to infiltrate military-grade security and steal computer tech than magicians?
The characters are joined by several others from the original, including FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who team up to track down the missing Horsemen.
That Now You See Me 2’s plot is convoluted isn’t a problem, but it’s unwillingness to let the audience in on the tricks this time is. As implausible as much of the first movie was, it rose above its cinematic trickery by at least attempting to explain how it worked, with talk of flash paper, binaural beats, and other fancy tactics of prestidigitation.
Now You See Me 2 instead treats the audience less as an apprentice than as a mark. Many parts defy believability, and this time around, the movie doesn’t even attempt to explain how it all works (mostly because much of it truly couldn’t) — at least, not until the final act’s reveal, which flouts reality even as it tries to demystify its trickery.
The distance Now You See Me 2 does get outs of its material is entirely thanks to its cast, who very evidently have an absolute blast on screen and make the overall movie so likeable as to nearly be above criticism. New additions Radcliffe and Caplan both fit in wonderfully, outperforming most of the returning members.
Harrelson, in particular, is a giddy delight as not just the returning Merritt but his evil twin, Chase. Chase is such an uproarious creation and brilliant addition to the mix, it’s almost a shame he wasn’t in the first picture.
Director Jon M. Chu picks up the reins from Louis Leterrier for the sequel and his lighter touch does give the movie more bouncy energy than its predecessor. With a stronger story, it would be an improvement, but Now You See Me’s borderline-silly script leads to a movie that’s all flash and no substance.
All good magic tricks have three parts and Now You See Me 3 has already been revealed to be in the works, so there’s still the chance for a truly spectacular finish to the series, when Now You See Me’s “pledge” and its sequel’s “turn” are capped by the eventual threequel’s “prestige.” On its own, though, Now You See Me 2 is enjoyable enough to dazzle you, but not different enough a second act to trick you a second time.