May Issue 2013

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 11 years ago

Pulling off a heist is much like performing an elaborate magic trick. The conman has to use sleight of hand, deception and misdirection to break into places and steal whatever it is he needs to steal. Now You See Me puts a twist on the heist movie genre by making the thieves be actual magicians, which promises an extra dollop of fun on top of the usual fare of bank robbers and scam artists. And it does deliver, at least in the entertainment factor.

The film begins by introducing us to four small-time magicians struggling to rise above the mediocre by virtue of their talent: Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), an arrogant, control-freak street magician, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a hypnotist who is particularly talented at reading people, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), a Houdini-like escape artist and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a petty thief who uses sleight of hand to relieve his victims of their belongings. The four of them are gathered together by an unknown entity via tarot cards that mysteriously appear in each of the four’s possession. Flash forward one year later, and four magicians, now calling themselves the ‘Four Horsemen’ have reached the pinnacle of their success, performing grand shows amidst thousands of clamouring fans. Their latest show in Las Vegas involves a trick where they seemingly rob a bank while on stage and distribute the loot among the audience. When it is discovered that the bank they claimed to rob is actually missing all that money, the Horsemen have to use all the tricks up their sleeves to evade the law.

Hot on their heels is grumpy FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and the beguiling French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), who have to figure out how the Horsemen pulled off the heist and stop them from doing the same thing at their future shows. Along for the ride are Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a former magician who now debunks and exposes magic tricks on a TV show, and Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), the Horsemen’s rich benefactor.

Now You See Me starts with a bang and the action doesn’t let up throughout. Events occur at a breakneck pace and twists are revealed at every turn, keeping the audience on their toes and leaving them no time to get bored. The best parts are undoubtedly watching the magic tricks unfold, and then later discovering how the tricks were done. The sequences where the Horsemen perform their magic tricks, much like the film itself, are splashy and fun, full of charming theatricality. The production of the film is slick and visually stylistic, and director Louis Leterrier (of the Transporter franchise) uses a Sherlock Holmes’ type of visual deduction to reveal how the tricks are pulled off, which is very satisfying to watch. Like a magic trick, the film uses misdirection and illusions to catch the viewer off guard.

Then again, the film’s slick production and constant action may be the director’s way of distracting the audience from the film’s shortcomings, one of which is that there is virtually no character development of the magicians beyond the opening 10 minutes. In fact, after the interesting introduction to the Horsemen, the focus is shifted almost entirely to the befuddled cops trying to catch them. It is a shame, since the magicians are by far the most interesting characters and you want to spend more time getting to know them. The second half of the film is also a little rushed, with the magic becoming more outlandish and with inadequate resolution in the end. The big reveal, although unexpected and therefore satisfying, is not explained as fully as was required. Maybe the reason for so many unanswered questions is that it leaves room for possible sequels, but nevertheless, it seems as if the director sacrificed character development and sometimes logic, for the sake of twists and turns and high production value.

Early on in the film, Jesse Eisenberg’s character challenges his audience to discover the secret to his magic tricks by daring them to look closer and pay more attention. “The more you look,” he proclaims smugly, “the less you’ll see.” Unfortunately, the opposite is true for the film itself. The more you think about it, the more shallow and implausible it seems, and the more plot holes you will discover. It is the kind of film that will leave you entertained when you leave the movie theatre but will not hold up under scrutiny once you go home and think about it. But as with a good magic trick, the realization that you had been duped will almost not matter because you had such a good time watching

This review was originally published in Newsline’s May 2013  issue under the headline, “The Magic of Movies.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.