The tricks are as flashy as the plotting is flimsy in “Now You See Me,” an illusion-filled caper from director Louis Leterrier that poses no serious challenge to Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” or David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner” in the pantheon of cinematic sleight-of-hand. Thanks to some accomplished hocus pocus and an appealing cast, this would-be “Ocean’s Eleven” of the magic world remains watchable throughout, even as it plods along without ever quite fulfilling its potential. Pic’s title portends its fortunes at a crowded summer box office, with considerably more robust ancillary prospects in store. Indeed, “Now You See Me” feels like nothing so much as a passable time-filler stumbled across by chance on latenight cable.
A jaunty pre-credits sequence introduces us to four illusionist protags: cocky prestidigitator J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg); escape artist Henley (Isla Fisher), who was once Atlas’ assistant; hypnotist/mentalist Merritt (Woody Harrelson); and card thrower/pickpocket/safecracker Jack (Dave Franco, James’ snarkier younger brother). When each magician receives a cryptic tarot card beckoning them to a New York loft space on an appointed day and time, they follow the instructions and find themselves beholden to an elaborate holographic light show organized by whomever called them together in the first place.
Flash forward a year and the quartet has joined forces, performing nightly as the Four Horsemen and about to embark on an arena tour backed by their millionaire impresario (Michael Caine). On opening night at the MGM Grand, the Horsemen attempt a particularly attention-getting showstopper: the apparent teleportation of one audience member (Jose Garcia) from Vegas to the vault of a Paris bank, the entire contents of which then magically rain down on the audience inside the theater. It’s a trick so convincing that the Horsemen soon find themselves in FBI custody, when the actual bank in question turns up €3 million short.
Without any hard evidence linking them to the crime ― unless, of course, you believe in real magic ― the Horsemen are soon free again and back on tour. From there, pic evolves into a fairly standard cat-and-mouse pursuit, as dogged FBI agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and his Interpol partner (Melanie Laurent) track the magicians to New Orleans ― where they pull off a similarly brazen, untraceable heist (this time at the expense of a giant insurance company) ― and then on to New York, where the stage is set for their grandest illusion yet. Also along for the ride and trying to play both sides against the middle: cynical, seen-it-all mythbuster Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who’s made a lucrative career out of publicly exposing magicians’ secrets.
Just exactly what the Horsemen are up to and why ― and to whose ultimate gain ― is something “Now You See Me” holds close to the vest for most of its running time. Screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt make a reasonably compelling guessing game out of who might be a possible “fifth horseman” helping the others to stay one step ahead of the authorities (with just about every secondary character positioned as a plausible suspect). But in a puzzling move that ends up seeming a fatal miscalculation, the film unfolds almost entirely through Rhodes’ eyes, keeping Atlas and friends offscreen for large stretches of the running time, rather like a “Robin Hood” movie told from the sheriff’s p.o.v.
Ruffalo gives a typically fine, unshowy performance as the by-the-book agent little interested in the art of magic, while Laurent’s character does her homework, trying to enter into the magician’s mindset. Of course, these two mismatched gumshoes clash at first, only to eventually feel their hearts growing fonder. Yet the longer “Now You See Me” focuses on their investigation, the more its ostensible heroes come to feel like one-note, one-dimensional supporting characters in their own narrative. Despite some snappy banter in the early scenes, these illusionist “Avengers” never really materialize as a team in the way pic clearly intends. And while this may ultimately be in keeping with the film’s announced spirit of “misdirection” (the supposed root of all successful illusions), in dramatic terms it’s simply unsatisfying.
Sporting a freshly uncurled hairdo, Eisenberg moves through the film with much the same self-satisfied smirk he wore in “The Social Network,” only here there’s little lurking beneath it except more smirk. True to the roles they’re playing, both Caine and Freeman seem to be here just to take the money and run.
Leterrier, who cut his teeth on several highly enjoyable B-movies from the Luc Besson factory (including the first two “Transporter” pics and the Jet Li vehicle “Danny the Dog”), hasn’t seemed quite as comfortable behind the camera since moving on to larger-scale fare like “The Incredible Hulk” and “Clash of the Titans.” Here, he puts most of his effort into the Horsemen’s glitzy stage shows (modeled on those of David Copperfield), including many tricks impressively staged “live” without use of CGI. But the entire film (credited to two lensers, one for the stage shows and one for everything else) is rendered visually monotonous by Leterrier’s decision to shoot nearly everything with a roving, swooping Steadicam. The numerous action scenes are staged in similarly frenetic fashion, with only a car chase along New York’s 59th Street Bridge emerging in spatially coherent fashion. Despite location shooting in Gotham, Paris and New Orleans, the pic affords little sense of exterior visual grandeur.
Composer Brian Tyler’s big, brassy, Lalo Schifrin-esque score stands apart from an otherwise serviceable tech package.