Now You See Me 2 director Jon M. Chu has shot two, count 'em two, Justin Bieber documentaries, so we know that he's used to working with shallow material. Chu's lighter touch is a marked difference from that of his predecessor, French director Louis Leterrier (Tne Transporter, Now You See Me), whose approach leaned toward taking the absurd seriously and amping up the action sequences. Chu, on the other hand, whose directorial credits also include G.I. Joe: Retaliation, two Step Up films and last year's rather infamous flop Jem and the Holograms, has turned in a less action-oriented and more openly cartoonish sequel that feels familiar yet still for the most part entertains largely on the strength of an ensemble cast who have fun even when the script isn't letting them.
If there's one thing that's true about magic, it's that once you've seen a trick you've seen the trick. You may spend some time trying to figure the trick out and you may even find yourself completely blown away by the trick, but if you ever see that trick again it'll never have the same magic again. The same is very much true for Now You See Me 2, a modestly entertaining film that lacks the pleasant surprise and delight of the first film and, try as he might, nothing Chu does ever comes close.
Part of the joy of Now You See Me was that no matter how preposterous it got, Leterrier took it seriously and that conviction carried us through the gimmicks, the implausibilities, the inconsistencies and so on. With Now You See Me 2, Chu has chosen to embrace the absolute absurdity of it all and the dumbed down and less character-driven story lacks the first film's holding power. Unfortunately, Chu has already been pegged to directly the already in the works third film, as well.
J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) are back as The Four Horsemen, though the fourth, Henley (Isla Fisher), has parted ways reportedly due to Fisher's real life pregnancy. In her place, Lizzy Caplan pops in as Lula, a stalkerish wannabe with some serious gifts for hocus-pocus. The Four Horsemen, sort of the magic world's Robin Hood, have been laying low since the events that unfolded in Now You See Me, a viewing of which isn't necessarily necessary to enjoy this film but it would likely help to understand the dynamics between several of the main characters. Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) has been locked away, while Michael Caine's Arthur Tressler, who was left empty-handed in the first film, is still awaiting the perfect opportunity for revenge.
After laying low for a year, the Four Horsemen are called back into action by their leader and guide, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), a double-agent of sorts with his own agenda for everything that unfolds, to take down one of the world's largest tech firms with dastardly plans for achieving world tech dominance in a way that is frightening because it feels slightly plausible. When their efforts go awry, the Four Horsemen find themselves at the mercy of Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), the aforementioned tech firm's CEO who wants to use the Four Horsemen to help pull off a seemingly impossible heist.
They say that life is more about the journey than the destination. This is very much the truth for Now You See Me 2, a modestly entertaining effort mostly on the strength of its ensemble cast, including two Academy Award winners and three Academy Award nominees, who could play these characters in their sleep. If you remember Now You See Me, you likely also remember that the film provided more question answers before tying itself up overly neatly yet not quite believably. Now You See Me 2 takes a similar approach with more questions than answers provided, though it's ending only makes it clear that Lionsgate is already planning on a third film to be released next year.
As a director, Chu has proven to have a knack for stylized sequences, though the visuals here almost feel like Jem and the Holograms meets cheesy 80's comedy. In one of the film's key scenes, an effort to acquire a valuable computer chip is carried out in an unconvincing and far too prolonged sequence that completely negates any sense of magic by obviously utilizing nothing more than cinematic trickery. It's not the only time in the film that Chu seemingly goes old school and Chu spends far too much of the film's far too long 129-minute running time tossing camera tricks at the screen in the guise of magic.
When Chu, on the other hand, steps back and refocuses the film on its characters, as Leterrier was so good at doing, the film is vastly more entertaining. Lizzy Caplan's easily excitable Lula is a wonderful burst of energy and spirit for the film, though I could have done without the predictable light romance between she and Dave Franco's Jack. Franco and Eisenberg both play likable versions of themselves, while Harrelson is tasked with pulling off the film's worst gimmick that will go unidentified here.
Morgan Freeman adds a nice sense of gravitas to the goings on, while Daniel Radcliffe just appears overly excited to be appearing in a film that's likely to be seen by more than 20 people. He makes the most of it. Mark Ruffalo is gifted with one of the film's more complex storylines, though at times even he seems to be aware that the film that's unfolding has lots its spark.
Now You See Me 2 is a modestly entertaining film, though it's very much the magic trick that you've seen before and despite a lighter touch it's simply impossible to get as excited about it a second time around. You'll enjoy spending some more time with these characters, though you won't be as excited by their exploits or as invested in their journeys.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic