Audiences loved them as a band of Robin Hood-styled thieves, using magic tricks to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Now, the Four Horsemen are back with a new heist in “Now You See Me 2.”
Jesse Eisenberg returns as Horsemen frontman Daniel Atlas, who has grown restless and reckless awaiting the secret society of The Eye to release him and his colleagues from hiding. Meanwhile, FBI agent/covert Eye member Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is hatching a new plot that would have the Horseman unveil a privacy-invasion scheme from the world’s leading software company. But his fellow feds suspect something’s up. Not even the addition of a quirky underground magician named Lula (Lizzy Caplan, replacing Isla Fisher’s Henley) can save the Horsemen when they’re shanghaied to China.
In Macau (“The Las Vegas of China”), the Horsemen are separated from Dylan, out of touch with The Eye, and blackmailed by “off-the-grid” entrepreneur Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) into accepting their most dangerous heist yet.
There’s a whole lot more to it, looping back to the death of Dylan’s father, the bridges burned before by the Horseman, an evil twin, and an ancient Chinese magic shop. But my advice on how to best enjoy this madcap magician adventure is to treat its plot line like a Magic Eye. Remember those visual illusions, where you cross your eyes and a vague pictures pops into focus? Fun! So, cross your eyes, let them blur, and you’ll be able to happily overlook the convoluted soap opera storyline, and just enjoy the ride.
Helmed by “G.I. Joe: Retaliation’s” Jon M. Chu, the “Now You See Me” sequel has an exuberant swagger and plenty of style, sliding through heist scenes with bold blocking, a jazzy score and a smooth cinematography, reveling in the Horseman’s tricks, be they perspective illusions, hypnotism or the kinds of stunts you can only pull off with movie magic. Some of the fight scenes feel messy, with an edit that doesn’t deliver hard-hitting blows as much as a sloppy sense of frenzy. But “Now You See Me 2” is much more about its swaggering rhythm and wild characters.
Once more, Dave Franco is fun and sexy as the cocky Jack Wilder. Ruffalo deftly handles the double life of Dylan, selling flustered FBI agent in one scene, and steely-eyed Horsemen handler the next. Woody Harrelson doubles the pleasure, playing twins! In addition to smirking hypnotist Merritt McKinney, Harrelson brings his unique mix of smarm and charm to brother Chase. With a flurry of finger wiggling, caked in a rich tan, blindingly white teeth and a nearly too-lush head of curls, Chase seems a playful caricature of Harrelson’s “True Detective” co-star Matthew McConaughey.
Franchise newcomers likewise fare well. Jay Chou, along with the film’s China-centered plot, seems a naked ploy to secure box-office success in the Asian market. Yet the popular Taiwanese actor/singer succeeds at bringing some attitude to his small role as the aforementioned magic shop’s clerk. However, the real standouts are Caplan and Radcliffe.
Finally, Caplan gets to return to the kind of subversive humor she’s delivered on television with “Party Down,” but has been sidelined out of as the love interest in movies like “The Interview” and “The Night Before.” As gross-out magician Lula, she gets to employ faux gore and faked deaths for shocks and dark laughs, ably selling these ghastly gags with a joyful bravado. But her greatest asset might be the wild-eyed enthusiasm Caplan brings to a festering group dynamic. Even as the three original Horsemen are sniping at each other, Lula pops in with a wacky one-liner to lift the mood and raise eyebrows. (Casual mentions of parents employing knives to throats in family squabbles will do that.)
Growling with a kitten’s menace, Radcliffe nonetheless relishes his rare chance to be a baddie, playing Mabry as an uber-evil Zuckerberg hellbent on business domination. The entitled mastermind is never exactly intimidating, but that’s what the millionaire’s muscle-bound minions are for. Beyond that, it’s weirdly hilarious to watch Harry Potter try to impress magicians with wonky card tricks!
But as Radcliffe goes bearded and snarly to sell sinister, Eisenberg — who actually played Zuckerberg (“The Social Network”) and a neo-Lex Luthor (“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”) — scowls nearby, proving a strange distraction. It’s hard not to see the two share the screen and not wonder if they’ve been miscast. As Eisenberg sneers at Radcliffe’s nefarious monologue, you can practically hear his inner snarking: “I did it better.” Which is debatable, but maybe that’s why Eisenberg seems so bored, like he’s walking through the rehearsal of scenes instead of diving into them full steam. Regardless, it’s unfortunate that one of the stars with the most screen time spends it mostly looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.
Nonetheless, “Now You See Me 2” overcomes, proving frothy and spectacle-fueled summer fun in the vein of “Ocean’s 11” and “Fast and Furious” series. Although not as spectacular as those, this franchise does boast razzle-dazzle, eccentric characters, a dizzying plot, and enough star power to make it pop.
“Now You See Me 2” opens today nationwide.
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