NOW YOU SEE ME 2 Is Fun But Not As Clever As The Original

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NOW YOU SEE ME 2 in theaters June 10, 2016.

Some films simply don't need sequels. When NOW YOU SEE ME hit theaters in 2013, it was something of a surprise hit. The premise was interesting enough: four magicians rob greedy, unscrupulous businessmen blind--live on stage! It featured a nice mix of up and coming actors (Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Isla Fisher) and familiar television stars (Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson) in important roles, surrounded by veteran talents such as Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. I thought it was one of the best films of the year and I would have been perfectly happy if it all ended there. Of course, they left room to turn it into a franchise, and Hollywood never passes on that kind of opportunity.

So hail, hail, the gang's all here again for NOW YOU SEE ME 2, minus Isla Fisher who nearly drowned during a stunt in the first film, and director Louis Leterrier who slides over to the executive producer role as Jon M. Chu takes the helm. Replacing Fisher is Lizzy Caplan, who brings a little bit of a dark twinge and street savvy to the token female role. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are back again, along with the former child sorcerer Daniel Radcliffe, who is sometimes interesting but usually a bit of a caricature. I'm reluctant to delve into the intricacies of the plot because that's sort of the point of these movies--intricate plots to misdirect your mind if not your eyes, so you'll be surprised when the trick is revealed. It worked very well the first time, but the new helmsman got a little too cute.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but...say it with me now..."LESS IS MORE!" The bigger the trick is, the greater the audience's suspension of disbelief must become. That's why street magic is so effective. Everyone can enjoy being surprised by a clever card trick or a vanishing coin. But how often is anyone going to walk up to you on the street and say, "Hey buddy! Wanna see me pull a private jet out of thin air?" No, not really. Where would you put it? That's where you'd sequel goes awry. The cast's chemistry is good, even if the new female Horseman is a bit marginalized by the script. It's the over-baked tricks that bring this sequel down from the heights of its predecessor. Yes, I know, the first installment had big tricks too. So does every David Copperfield special (Copperfield is also a co-producer on the film). But they don't try to get as cute as this film does. See the "hide the card" trick that goes on for easy too long and relies on a room full of security professionals being idiots and you'll see what I mean. The scene is made even worse when the Eye, the secret society of musicians from the first film, is revealed at the end. Fancy sleight of hand is amusing in short doses. I didn’t time the scene but it sure felt like a good 10-plus minutes of over-the-top card tomfoolery.

I was not looking forward to watching Jesse Eisenberg again so soon after his disastrous turn as Lex Luthor in BATMAN VS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. His performance, given no help whatsoever from David Goyer’s horrendous script and Zack Snyder’s using the film as another attempt to turn Michael Bay filmmaking into an elevated art form. One wouldn’t think Jon M. Chu, responsible for such Wal-Mart bargain bin fare as GI JOE: RETALIATION and JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, would be able to make a better picture than Warner Brother’s favorite son, but NOW YOU SEE ME 2 actually works fairly well, despite its shortcomings.

On its own, it's an entertaining couple of hours of magic and heist caper twists. But less is more, and less over-the-top tricks and less Woody Harrelson—on double duty playing his “evil” twin brother-- would have gone a long way towards making NOW YOU SEE ME 2 at least as good as the original. On the other hand, Tsai Chin, a terrific actress from a distinguished Chinese acting family whose career goes back to the  1950s, has some laugh out loud moments and is a welcome addition to the supporting cast. Director Chu sticking to the formula put in place by executive producer Leterrier’s original film pays off well here, bu the payoff doesn’t hit as hard as the original did.  They've already started on a third installment, maybe we'll get less obviousness and more cleverness in the grand finale, but, like always, when it comes to magic and movie sequels I’ll believe it when I see it. 

3.5 / 5.0