Magic shows and heist movies have the same set of principles that audiences have come to expect. The promise of the trick or heist must be spectacular. The impossible obstacles of the trick or the heist must be thoroughly demonstrated. And the magician or the thief must actually get away with it, dazzle us, and leave our jaws hanging open. All of these conditions are thoroughly satisfied in Now You See Me, a heist movie with magicians that captivates with pure fun and showmanship.
Both the game and the players are introduced immediately with our four main magicians performing in their distinct elements. Daniel Atlas (a perfectly cocky Jesse Eisenberg) performs an impossible card trick for a beautiful woman in the streets of New York. Elsewhere, the shady mentalist Merritt McKinney (the smooth Woody Harrelson) blackmails money out of a hypnotized woman and her terrified husband inside of a shop. In a Las Vegas magic show, beautiful stage magician Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) performs a high drama trick in which she must escape from a water tank populated with an unconventional set of predators. Meanwhile, in New York, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) oozes charisma with an impromptu trick on a ferry involving a spoon, a bet, and impossibly fast fingers.
After a mysterious hooded figure gives each magician a tarot card with a cryptic invitation, these magicians join together to form the enigmatic act known as The Four Horsemen. Now bankrolled by a millionaire benefactor, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), the four magicians seem on top of the world. When, in their first show, they daringly rip off millions from Paris bank and rain down the pilfered money on their live audience, they attract the attention of FBI detective Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol detective Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) who immediately question the Four Horseman after they are brought in.
It is here that the cat and mouse game dramatically steps up, as the magicians dare the authorities (and the audience, for that matter) to hold them with proof of any wrongdoing, and insist that “the closer you look, the less you’ll see.” Later, detective Rhodes, exasperated by these colorful characters who are always two steps ahead of him, seeks advice from Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) an ex-magician and television personality that warns him that what he’s witnessing is only a small part of the trick, with the bigger game being played out on a global scale.
Scenes reminiscent of Catch Me if You Can and The Thomas Crown Affair immediately ensue, with the detectives Rhodes and Dray desperately trying to catch up, or, failing that, merely understand the heists the Four Horsemen keep being able to pull off. Narrow escapes, shenanigans, mysterious symbols, and dizzying misdirection form a maze in which the authorities seem to keep running in circles. It is not long before audiences will not know who to trust, who is in on the con, or what exactly the Four Horsemen are up to.
This is an ensemble film of high style, where chemistry, flashy action, twists, and pace lead the film. Every actor shines, but Ruffalo is particularly memorable in his role, with a natural style that makes you believe his every determined, exasperated moment. A particularly inventive action sequence which pits his detective’s fighting skills against a magician’s rapid fire tricks is one of the most creative I’ve seen in years.
Indeed it is the movie’s unpredictability and sense of joy that is its greatest strength. Every scene is a surprise, with trick after trick leading to a climax that will drop more than a few jaws. Now You See Me is a rapid-fire puzzle that audiences will have no hope of solving, but will give them an old-fashioned sense of wonder and fun. Some may complain of a few plot holes, or perhaps that there’s not much depth. Ultimately, the film’s sheer entertainment value trumps all of these complaints, with the momentum of the big show overtaking all. When grumpy detective Rhodes momentarily smiles when detective Dray performs an amateur magic trick, she asks “Now didn’t you have fun?”
Of course he did. And so will anyone who loves an old-fashioned good time.