2016 has seen one critically mauled sequel after the next. Zoolander 2; The Huntsman: Winter’s War; The Divergent Series: Allegiant; Alice Through the Looking Glass; My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2; and of course, Batman V Superman. Now another film has presented itself for demolition. Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu and written by Ed Solomon, reintroduces audiences to The Four Horsemen – magicians and thieves, who use their knack for illusions to steal from the rich and give to the everyman. Mark Ruffalo leads the not-short-on-talent cast, portraying modern-day Robin Hood: FBI agent Dylan Rhodes.
The first film had its strengths. It had a brilliant cast and an enjoyable plot. It was fun and it was flashy. Or at least, I thought it was. Now I am unsure whether I was charmed by the big names, the fancy effects, and the illusion that the magicians on the screen were letting me in on the secrets of their trade. Instalment two of the series strives hard for the magic touch of its predecessor. Where the first film became a beacon of originality in the 2013 blockbuster landscape, the lacklustre finale of this new release serves to remind us that some things are better left as they are.
It’s been 18 months since the Four Horsemen’s last performance, and not a great deal has happened. Jesse Eisenberg’s illusionist Atlas, Woody Harrelson’s hypnotist Merrit and Dave Franco’s card shark Jack, are in hiding since the grand heist featured in the last film. Isla Fisher’s Henley has left the group, to be replaced by Lizzy Caplan’s fast-talking, sleight of hand whizz Lula.
There is very little draw in the over-packed but dull premise. A revengeful – or is it jealous? – foe wants to utilise the Horsemen’s skills for his own gain and kidnaps them during their comeback performance, but then lets them wander largely free to their own devices and scheming. A new setting, Macau (“the Vegas of Asia”), provides a sequel trope that echoes The Hangover, or Rush Hour, adding little pizzazz to an already dreary magic show. Presumably for the purpose of drawing in Chinese movie goers.
The movie is so strangled by its convoluted plot that the easy repartee of the Horsemen from the original is never recaptured. Interesting ideas are introduced, then not given any real depth; such as the transition from stealing money (or as the Horsemen would put it, stealing back money) in the first film, to a much more contemporaneous commodity: privacy. The most irritating of the films ludicrous twists and turns arises when audiences witness all the film’s leading characters thrown out of a plane mid-flight, supposedly to their deaths. This inclusion so unbelievable it warrants an eye roll, and then a yawn as our professionnels de l'illusion explain how they fooled their attempting murders to a now long-disinterested audience.
Regardless of the dull journey set out for them in Ed Solomon’s screenplay, each member of the cast does their best with the material – to mixed results. Caplan is a natural addition to group, easily filling the singular lead female position in both the group of magicians, and the film as a whole, that was opened by Isla Fisher’s departure. Eisenberg returns again to successfully replicate the self-focused persona he has built for himself, and his various main characters since his Zuckerberg characterisation in 2010, while Franco, Ruffalo and Harrelson fight hard to give the second act the same cast banter that energised its predecessor. Harrelson even earns a double-billing thanks to the introduction of his curly haired evil twin; a character who while at first appears an entertaining addition, will quickly leave audiences wishing he would just disappear.
Michael Caine returns as Four Horsemen enemy, Arthur Tressler who this time brings along his illusion-loving son, played by Daniel Radcliffe, to finish off the ensemble. The film’s biggest disservice to audiences unfortunately falls upon Radcliffe who returns to screens in his first magic-themed film since the final Harry Potter feature. Despite this easy path into what could have been iconic and very of-their-time jokes, any mention of boy wizards was noticeably absent and for many Potter-fans this will be disappointing. This level of self-awareness certainly would not have been out of place alongside the carefully constructed dialogue of Caplan’s character who repeatedly makes point of the lack of female presence throughout the film. Even more impressive than this very twenty-first century effort, would have been the inclusion of more women.
Despite its misgivings, there are glimmers which indicate that an early screenplay – one long forgotten about – had the potential to be an enjoyable watch. One brief romantic scene between two pickpockets winks at the classic comedy Trouble in Paradise, but is lackluster and unimpressionable. Alas, any form of clever storytelling has been abandoned on the cutting room floor. Lost to the calls of Big Bosses for more magic and more attempts to outsmart everyone, particularly the audience.
Where the first film excelled in the care and time it took to educate audiences on how the illusions are concocted by the Horsemen, its sequel disregards this successful tactic and instead relies on audiences to accept the magic of the second act as simply that – magic. In fact, explanations of any kind are entirely neglected in the story; plot holes and unanswered questions abundant. The only thing that is clear to audiences is that this story should have concluded in 2013.
Tepid, tedious, and uncomfortably long, Chu and Solomon have forgotten to include the one thing they indisputably promised by taking on this undeniably unnecessary sequel: a little bit of magic.