Director Jon M. Chu is known for his skill and infectious exuberance. He’s made us like Justin Bieber with not just one, but two documentaries on the Joffrey of pop music (NEVER SAY NEVER and BELIEVE). He reinvigorated the dance movie genre and pushed 3D tech leaps ahead with STEP UP 3D. He even delivered a far better sequel than the original with G.I. JOE: RETALIATION. But it’s not been all sunshine, rainbows and critical praise. He was hit hard by fan retaliation against his re-imagining of JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS and the box office suffered. And, with the release of NOW YOU SEE ME 2, it would seem Chu’s self-assurance has taken a hit . His highly anticipated sequel lacks any sort of confidence, energy and creativity – and has completely lost sight of who these characters are, turning them into criminals rather than the Robin Hood-esque heroes they proved themselves to be.
After jailed-magic-debunker-with-a-grudge Thaddeus (Morgan Freeman) summarizes the first film in the opening credits, we finally get to the plot. Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is double-dipping, working for both the FBI with a new partner (Sanaa Lathan) and as the leader of “The Four Horsemen,” a crew of magicians comprised of showman Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), whip-smart mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and wily sleight-of-hand expert Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). Though perpetually-gloved escape artist Henley (Isla Fisher) has left the group, and they are still being hunted by the authorities, the group remains functioning on the down low. They’ve even acquired a new member, Lula (Lizzy Caplan, playing a female Vince Vaughn), whose magic talent is cross-talking. Anyways, when their reunion illusion backfires spectacularly, the horsemen are forced into working for wealthy shut-in Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). Further maddening shenanigans and hijinks ensue.
“The best tricks work on many levels,” however, this movie magic doesn’t even work on one, totally superficial level. In the 2013 original, director Louis Letterier and screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt brilliantly laid the groundwork for these rich characters. They could have gone anywhere. However, instead Solomon (who shares story by credit with Peter Chiarelli) wastes any opportunity to deepen the characters and their relationships. It can’t even reconcile things it posits at the front of the story (like Lula being an escape artist) with what’s shown at the end (Lula unable to create a graceful exit from her London performance, leaping off stage like a normal person). Nothing comes of the simmering feud between Atlas and Rhoades – their dynamic lacks any strife past one scene where they set it up and don’t bother to pay it off. Anything involving Merritt’s struggle (a.k.a. where Harrelson really “Johnny Derps” it up) doesn’t work for comedy or drama. Attempts at a romance between Lula and Jack are executed haphazardly, sharing a flirtatious moment in act two and then an out-of-nowhere kiss in the finale. The squad’s Octa 8 plan runs counter-intuitive to what these characters stand for – or at least what we thought they did.
Performances fail as well. Eisenberg looks like he doesn’t want to be there – and by act two, you’ll share in that feeling. Caplan, who is resplendent in just about everything, is forced to overcompensate, babbling incessantly throughout much of her screen time. Franco isn’t given much of anything to do except have a Cheshire-cat grin slapped across his face in any given scene. Lathan is woefully underused as well. Although Radcliffe’s character isn’t a formidable foe at all, he’s the only one who approaches his scenes with any kind of bubbling energy.
While I’m ecstatic the filmmakers didn’t use The Clash’s “London Calling” when the characters traveled to London (a cinematic pet peeve of mine due to overuse), their other music choices – The Drifters “This Magic Moment,” Perry Como’s “Magic Moments,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” 50 Cent’s “Magic Stick” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” – don’t escape my scorn. Too on-the-nose, guys. Most of the magic-driven action sequences are noticeably CG’d – the one taking place in the server room being the most egregious. There’s even a completely superfluous motorcycle chase thrown in just to have a loud attention-grabber before we get to act three.
Perhaps what’s most disheartening is that a light, vibrant energy seems to be gone from Chu’s style. I sincerely hope it returns not just for NOW YOU SEE ME 3, but also back into his life. Sadly, this magic act is see-through.
2 out of 5
NOW YOU SEE ME 2 opens on June 10.