Magic is an art form that can work brilliantly intimately, and can be taken to a larger arena scale and still have the same effect. But to adapt it to film has proved tricky for director Louis Letterier in Now You See Me, where four magicians from different disciplines form ‘The Four Horsemen’. When they appear to rob a Parisian bank by magic, an FBI investigation begins led by Dylan Rhodes and as he follows their every move trying to bring them to justice, they always seem to be one step ahead. The battle of wits becomes over complicated, leaving no room for much needed character development. Even the Nolan-esque inclusions of veteran actors Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine couldn’t save the floundering plot, leaving it feeling too much like it wanted to be The Prestige but wasn’t smart enough to pull it off.
The opening segment introducing each of the horsemen was nicely done, giving a little bit of background and showing us their individual areas of expertise where it be street magic, mentalism or escapism. There is a card trick shown early on which works well onscreen, performed by the smug Daniel Atlas, which showed a lot of promise from the outset but once the allegiance is formed, the magic is lost and none of the characters achieve any sense of likeability. The cat and mouse chase with the FBI livens it up boasting an acutely choreographed fight sequence but aside from this standout scene, the rest is a glossy mess with too many subplots. An unconvincing FBI romance is wedged in about halfway through, played out in a typical fashion and adding nothing to the key concept of the film, which on paper should really have made for a much more interesting story.
For a film with such an impressive cast, it is a shame that none of the characters are given enough depth to be likeable. Jesse Eisenberg does another Zuckerberg turn as the cocky Daniel Atlas but where he was arrogant yet charismatic in The Social Network spitting quick witted dialogue, here his know-it-all front becomes irritating very quickly, possibly down to a much weaker script. Woody Harrelson is meant to be the comic relief as mentalist Merritt the Hermit, but offers only a few cheap laughs at most whereas Fisher and Franco are practically in the background making up the numbers. Morgan Freeman used to be a reliable force, and seeing his name attached to a project would nearly always make it watchable but his portrayal as Thaddeus Bradley is tired, as is Michael Caine’s performance as insurance magnate Arthur Tressler. It seems they were written in to offer some credibility to proceedings but neither cope particularly well in the muddled production. It is disappointing to see the big screen icons slumping into trash such as this, but it has been a recurring theme of late.
Maybe the key to making good magic movies is to keep them light and fun, such as The Incredible Burt Wonderstone or even Mitchell and Webb’s effort, simply titled Magicians, which don’t take themselves seriously. ‘Now You See Me’ was perhaps too ambitious, cramming in elaborate tricks then explaining how they were done thereby losing the mystique and illusion, which you would imagine to be a vital component. In trying to show how intelligent it is, by unravelling the complexities to the viewer, it comes across more cocky than clever, much like the protagonists. As magic flicks go, it misses a trick.