Director Louis Letterier’s 2013 madcap magician heist caper Now You See Me was every bit the smoke and mirrors act employed by its characters: Lots of flashy and entertaining distraction but really nothing truly magical going on. But despite a so-so reception it still managed to conjure up enough of a franchise-building audience to lead us to Now You See Me 2. So can this new trick – now under the directorial guidance of Jon M. Chu – pack some more prestige?

It’s been three years since the Four Horsemen – Jesse Eisenberg’s street magician ring leader Danny Atlas, Woody Harrelson’s hypnotist Merrit McKinney, Isla Fisher’s escape artist Henley Reeves and Dave Franco’s slight of hand card shark Jack Wilder – were brought together under mysterious circumstances to form the stage magic super group. The Hoursemen didn’t just wow audiences with prestidigitation though, but also acted as modern-day Robin Hoods, robbing and exposing corrupt businesses in logistically impossible heists in plain view of the authorities who can’t seem to pin a crime on them thanks to the absurd magical nature of their evidence.

The first film ended with an extra flourish of its hand where before the Horsemen went into hiding, it revealed that the FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) hunting them was actually the one who brought them together as part of some rather preposterous long con revenge plot against Morgan Freeman’s magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley – not to mention also introducing some form of clandestine magical illuminati known as The Eye! These last second twists were intended to drop jaws, they instead just raised my brows.

This time around though the Horsemen – minus one Isla Fisher, but plus a Lizzy Caplan – end up being conned themselves during their big comeback caper and magically transported around the world to Macau. The how and the why ends up being young tech billionaire turned sneeringly fun villain Walther Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) who blackmails them into pulling off a heist for him – the most elaborate and challenging the crew has ever faced – to nab a competitor’s product. The Horsemen go along, but always with a seemingly endless supply of increasingly far-fetched tricks up their voluminous sleeves so that they can end up tops.

There’s a bit more going on, as the film’s narrative whips around in a caffeinated frenzy with an ever more ludicrous plot twist never more than few scenes away, but that’s really all par for the course for this series though. And I think its safe to say that if you liked the original’s breezy bit of tomfoolery and didn’t mind its signposted insistence on not thinking too hard, then this will definitely float your boat as well. Or levitate your ship, to further the magical metaphor.

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The biggest new tick in the plus column for this sequel though is that new director Jon M. Chu has a better grasp of polished big scale set pieces than Letterier did and is allowed a lot more toys to play with. A duo of particularly jazzy set pieces respectively involving the Horsemen’s cardistry skills to steal the film’s microchip macguffin, as well as Eisenberg pulling off a series of hilarious wardrobe quick-changes to infiltrate an event definitely stand out as highlights.

Unfortunately Chu’s skills don’t translate as well to the realm of subtlety though. Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes is particularly hard done by as his arc is setup here as the beating heart of the movie, but never really reaches proper emotional authenticity – no thanks to a mopey performance from Ruffalo himself – undercutting some of the later curtain dropping reveals.

Caplan’s new addition Lula helps to revive affairs though as she brings a whole lot of spunk to the movie, with her character instantly moving up the cast’s likability ladder with ease. Similarly Radcliffe isn’t given as much to do as I would have liked, but when he gets going he pulls off the smarmy villain gig so well – while of course throwing in a few magical meta-jabs at his Harry Potter past – that I would love to see more evil mustache twirling in the young actor’s future. And then there’s Harrelson who noticeably gets to do a bit more with… well, I think I’ll rather leave that as a pleasantly loopy surprise to discover for yourself.

The biggest blight on Now You See Me 2‘s record though is it not quite grasping when enough plot is enough. Or too little. Proverbial rugs are constantly being pulled out, but its all just so much dramatic wheelspinning. And at a bulky running time of 129 minutes, you end up with a movie that simultaneously feels both underscripted and overplotted.

My criticisms aside, I’m sure the franchise’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Dynamo act is certainly still an intriguing enough hook to keep bums in seats. Yes, its character work is shoddy and the scripting helter skelter – not to mention, increasingly more difficult to believe – but it is also a fleet-footed and light-fingered cinematic jaunt that should keep you distracted/entertained enough during its running time. If you bought into the first film’s similar wares, then chances are you’ll find this just as magical.

Last Updated: June 9, 2016

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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