Now You See Me was a pleasant surprise for me. I went into the under-the-radar hit three years ago with no expectations and came out having thoroughly enjoyed myself. It combined a winning cast with a sense of visual flair to tell a fun, twisting story that that kept me engaged and guessing throughout. But while it ended with a surprising reveal and a cliffhanger, I never really felt that it needed a sequel. Nevertheless, Now You See Me 2 is now in theaters, and I went into it with much higher expectations based on my experience with the first. The sequel mostly succeeds, reuniting almost all of its talented cast and giving us a film that captures a lot of what made the original feel special while throwing in some new wrinkles to keep things feeling fresh. I may not have been clamoring for Now You See Me 2, but I’m generally pleased it’s here.
Picking up a year after the events of Now You See Me, the story picks up with the group of magicians known as the Horsemen in hiding following their Robin Hood-esque undertakings in the first film. Their time away may have made them legends around the world, but the waiting is getting to Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), who is ready for the mysterious organization the Eye, which recruited them at the end of the last film, to finally put their unique skills to use. Their leader who secretly guided them through their grand mission and lead them to the Eye, Dylan (Mark Ruffalo), is still working as a mole for the FBI, using his investigation to throw the Bureau off the Horsemen’s scent. And Henley (played by Isla Fisher in the first movie) has left the group over personal disagreements with the team, but she is replaced by Dylan by ambitious up-and-comer Lula (Lizzy Caplan). Their long year of hiding in the shadows is finally brought to an end thanks to a new mission, with the group planning to expose the corrupt dealings of the executive software designer who plans to steal his customer’s data. Lula joins the Horsemen Atlas and Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson) onstage for their first public appearance, interrupting a tech conference, but things go wrong quickly for the heroic team of illusionists. A voice interrupts the proceedings to reveal to the public that the fourth member of the team, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), who faked his own death at the end of the last movie, is still alive, and that Dylan has secretly been their leader the whole time, right under the noses of the FBI
While Dylan goes on the run from the Feds, the Horsemen are kidnapped by an unusual figure who has also been in hiding. Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) was the former partner of the software executive the Horsemen were trying to expose and who helped design the code capable of stealing everyone’s data, but who faked his death and went off the grid when their company was stolen out from under him. Mabry wants the Horsemen to use their unique talents to break into the server room and steal the chip containing the malicious code or he’ll have them killed. Meanwhile Dylan is forced by desperation to recruit an old foe, Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman), in order to try to save the Horsemen. The Horsemen must find a way to save their lives while still getting one up on the sadistic Mabry, and their journey will ultimately take them around the globe as they uncover the secrets of the Eye, unearth surprises about the man who kidnapped them, and ultimately come together for a final magical showdown in London for all the world to see.
The first Now You See Me found the perfect sweet spot in balancing the various aspects of its story. It was a movie about magicians, but in its plot it was actually a heist film about a group of con men trying to pull one over on corporate villains. But even more importantly, it capitalized on both the audience’s desire to believe in magic and its need to know how the magic was really done. It looked at magic from both sides, giving us impossible feats alongside a technical debunking, making what we saw feel all the more magical once we learned the effort, talent, and ingenuity required to pull off the tricks. And it was all capped with a swirling visual style from director Louis Leterrier that kept everything just enough off kilter so that you didn’t know want to believe.
Now You See Me 2, while similar, is a very different animal. Since we know the twists of the first film, the sequel makes it clear from the start that we’re watching a targeted series of heists and cons, first in the name of defending the public, then for our heroes to save their own skins, and finally in the hopes of exposing the bad guys so they can be brought to justice. This time around, however, our heroes are no longer the ones in control, having to scrap and improvise in order to pull off their plans. And this time they have an opponent from the start, someone with whom they can match wits, skills, and resources. These give the sequel a very different energy from the first film, aided by a more visceral directorial style from Jon M. Chu.
The returning cast all seem like they’re having more fun this time, and the movie feels looser as a result. Mark Ruffalo is given much more to do in the sequel, while Woody Harrelson is clearly having a ball hamming it up in ways I wouldn’t dare spoil. Lizzy Caplan (who replaced the pregnant Isla Fisher) makes Lula a very different character from Henley, full of energy and constantly questioning everything that happens, offering the audience an outsider character with whom they can identify. The casting of Daniel Radcliffe is clearly a joke in and of itself, bringing Harry Potter into a film about magicians whose tricks actually use no magic at all, but he makes an interesting and entertaining villain. His Walter Mabry is more than a little bit off, dangerous and somewhat mad but funny and charming in his own unexpected way. Both movies are stuffed with far more acting talent than seems right for a movie of this sort, and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine bring weight and natural performances that really help sell the film.
But it’s the moments of magic where the film really shines. Whether it’s a simple slight-of-hand card trick or an elaborate technical street performance showcasing powers beyond your imagination, there’s an energy that comes being deceived by your senses. Even when we know it’s a trick, or even how the trick is done, there’s still a sort of breathless thrill in seeing the impossible happen before our very eyes. Somewhat sadly, Now You See Me 2 has fewer of these moments than its predecessor, though the moments it has are perhaps even more impressive, and it makes up for those by giving us more action and more depth to our characters. Still, Now You See Me 2 isn’t quite as polished as the first film, nor does it grab your attention in the same way. It’s mysteries aren’t as urgent, and at times it lacks that need from the audience to know what’s going to happen next. But Now You See Me 2 is still a lot of fun, and unlike the first film I was left with a desire for more. Having given us a successful outing, I’m curious to see what the team could give us with a third, to see what new secrets might be revealed and what mind-boggling feats of magic we might be treated to next. And isn’t the best rule of any performance, magic or not, to leave us wanting more?