If you want to see the very best movie about stage magic, then you should watch Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. No question, full stop. But, the whole reason that movie studios make money is, sometimes people don’t feel like watching a movie as powerful and intricately constructed as The Prestige. Sometimes you just want a lighthearted romp about the most bad-ass stage magicians in the world. In that situation, you could do a lot worse than the 2013 sleeper hit Now You See Me.
The bad-ass stage magicians in question are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco,* each of them summoned from their decent lives as solo acts to become the top-tier Las Vegas show known as the Four Horsemen. Once their act appears to mystically rob a Parisian bank vault, an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) teams up with an Interpol rookie (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds) to solve the case.
That’s quite a cast already, and I haven’t even gotten to Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine yet. You might even say that this film is like Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables action series, except Now You See Me replaces muscles with acting skill. Thus, the biggest challenge faced by director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk) is keeping the film at a brisk enough pace that no one of those great actors is off-screen too long.
He doesn’t entirely succeed. At the halfway point in this nearly-two-hour film, one might have reason to complain that the Four Horsemen haven’t had enough screen time and that Oscar nominees Eisenberg and Harrelson are vastly overqualified for the roles that they are playing. Almost all of the character development of the Horsemen comes in the pre-credits sequence, before they become a team; once the big shows start they barely get a moment where they’re not doing magic or running from the cops. I’m still trying to figure out if the movie even needed Franco’s character for any reason other than because “The Three Horsemen” sounds rather lame.
Yet, the movie never bogs down or becomes tiresome. The Franco character gets a nifty fight sequence, and even though I think that Eisenberg (or his stuntman) could have just as easily had it, it’s fun to watch no matter who is doing the tricks. Even if the film becomes more about the Ruffalo and Laurent characters in its second half than the Four Horsemen, there’s nothing at all wrong with that, because Ruffalo and Laurent are two fantastic actors and Leterrier’s action-movie pace never slows.
And while this film has nothing near the meticulous screenplay and impeccable timing that The Prestige has, like The Prestige it is constructed somewhat like a magic trick. Without spoiling anything, it turns out that there was a very good reason to have the Four Horsemen take a bit of a backseat in the movie; like their tricks, the Horsemen themselves are a bit of a misdirection from the real story at play. That story isn’t anything new – as I joked after the movie, the protagonist of this movie is basically Batman under another name – but it is well-executed and a lot of fun. Now You See Me isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it’s as solid a show as the Horsemen themselves.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Yes, brother of James Franco. The family resemblance is impossible to miss.