Saturday, June 1, 2013

It's All Done With Mirrors And Lights

Reel To Reel: Now You See Me

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Language, moderate violence, one brief sexually suggestive scene

Now You See Me is Ocean's Eleven mashed up with The Prestige, using superstar magicians to pull off huge robberies. However, the film plays like one gigantic illusion because it keeps its most compelling characters and story elements hidden behind the curtain.

The opening minutes show promise as we are introduced to street magician J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), hustler mentalist Merritt McKinney (Harrelson), pickpocket illusionist Jack Wilder (Franco), and escape artist Henley Reeves (Fisher). We learn their craft and their quirks more efficiently than Danny Ocean can put together the big con. But after this, the picture starts yanking our chains. All four illusionists are summoned to meet at a dingy New York City apartment rigged up to be the magical equivalent of Indiana Jones' opening quest for a golden idol. Here they discover a blueprint for -- ta-da! -- "a show!"

The film jumps to their first performance as "The Four Horsemen," a magical supergroup who pulls off a real show-stopper: robbing a bank live on a Vegas stage. Only they don't actually rob it, they teleport a Frenchman into the vault of a bank in his home country to do it for them in an impossible fashion, but it's magic, and it works. Euros rain down upon a stunned audience while befuddled bankers wonder how all that money got away from under their noses.

Now the film jumps again, away from the illusionists and into a cops-and-robbers chase. FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is your standard-issue no-nonsense cop straight from Central Casting paired with an appropriately sexy French Interpol agent, Alma Dray (Laurent). He can't get anything out of the four in the interrogation room, so he is resigned to tailing them as they move on to other shows -- and other heists -- in New Orleans and the Big Apple.

Giving him some pointers and mocking reality checks, is ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman), who now works as a professional skeptic. He exposes tricks for a living and he knows all the secrets. We're not sure who he's really serving, which becomes clearer as he spars with Arthur Tressler (Caine), a financial mogul who's bankrolling the Four's shows.

Ocean's Eleven works because you're in both on the con and the con men. Ditto for The Prestige and its stronger companion film, The Illusionist. They let their stars breathe and develop some chemistry. Now You See Me goes through a few token scenes of interaction, but we still don't care enough about the principals. It's as if the writers threw the four magicians together, wrote a few script pages, and then realized they couldn't make it work from their perspective -- even with Atlas and Reeves sharing an on-stage history. So they punted the film into an action procedural with a lot of special effects and illusion. The film also makes the oh-too-obvious ploy of throwing a romantic curve into Rhodes' and Dray's working relationship.

I wanted to see more inside the plotting and scheming, not giving it all away, but just enough to make us think we're seeing it all, not something loosely recycled from TV cop shows. Even so, it still builds interest if only to figure out how the film will try to top one impossible heist after the next. Director Louis Leterrier made The Transporter a slick, smart, action thriller. Here he trades off some of the smart for more slickness, and while it doesn't always work, it works just enough.

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