Thursday, June 9, 2016

More Horsing Around: "Now You See Me 2" no less far-fetched but more fun

Now You See Me 2 (2016)
129 min., rated PG-13.

Released around the start of the 2013 summer movie season, director Louis Leterrier’s sleight-of-hand caper “Now You See Me” seemed like a breath of fresh air. Throwing together a first-rate cast and working a magician’s misdirect into what was essentially a heist picture, the film was dumb fun for a long time before it crumbled with too many laborious tricks that drew more of a shrug than the hopeful “how did they do that?” wonderment. Somehow, sequel “Now You See Me 2” does not follow the law of diminishing returns, nor does it pose the question, “Why did they do that?” Besides it being a missed opportunity to call it “Now You Don’t,” “Now You See Me 2” isn’t really any less far-fetched, but it actually gets away with making us take the leaps of faith by having no pretenses and, as a result, surpasses its predecessor.

At the conclusion of “Now You See Me,” it was revealed that FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) was a mole and actually the puppet master who brought together the street magicians, known as “The Four Horsemen,” as a vendetta for the death of his late father, legendary magician Lionel Shrike. Taking place eighteen months after the previous film, this story sees three of the four Robin Hood prestidigitators—card sharp J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and illusionist Jack Wilder (Dave Franco)—in hiding, following their global fame of using their showmanship to expose corrupt magnates, take from the rich and give to the poor and outwit the FBI. They also set up magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) to take the fall. With sole female Lula (Lizzy Caplan) new to the fray, the Horsemen return into the public eye with their comeback show in N.Y.C. to expose a tech company’s shady plan. When Rhodes’ identity is exposed and his team become wanted fugitives, they get whisked away to Macau, “the Vegas of China,” by tech prodigy Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), who forces them to pull off a heist to steal a microchip or else they will be blackmailed.

“Now You See Me 2” is as loopy as the first picture, but director Jon M. Chu (2015’s “Jem and the Holograms”) and returning-solo screenwriter Ed Soloman have less to prove this time. With the secrets now out in the open, the film takes the viewer back to New Jersey, 1984 in a flashback opening, as a young Dylan (William Henderson) witnesses dad Lionel Shrike (Richard Laing) perform his fatally last act in a safe dropped into the river. The film is still breezy, playful fluff, but this introduction adds more weight than anything the first one had. As a matter of fact, Dylan is the only character with really any backstory to speak of or an actual career beyond making doves appear out of a coat. This time, the Horsemen are at best treated as the actual protagonists and not just blindly led puppets.

Though the characters still don’t feel any more than paper-thin, the charismatic performers are collectively fun to watch at work. Woody Harrelson, in particular, seems to be having a blast pulling double-duty, as he also plays Merritt’s evil twin Chase in big white choppers and a curly wig, an act that's amusing for a while only because of Harrelson. While the film unceremoniously drops Isla Fisher (who couldn't return due to her pregnancy) as escape artist Henley and explains her absence in a quick line, Lizzy Caplan is actually quite a snug fit into this man’s club and gives her role of excitable illusionist Lula, “the girl Horseman,” an acerbic shot in the arm. Her gory fake-out illusions with guillotines and electric knives are highlights, and her reaction to her male cohorts asking if she knows how to ride a motorcycle in preparing for a high-speed chase is priceless. Old pros like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return. While the former only really has an extended cameo as fat-cat benefactor Arthur Tessler, the latter serves his purpose with that great voice of his utilized for exposition. Finally, new player Daniel Radcliffe is game to play a snot-nosed tech wizard (hah!).

Whereas “Now You See Me” was a fun lark before it revealed to be only half as clever as it thought it was, “Now You See Me 2” is slicker, more energetic and more patently preposterous in its anything-goes showmanship. Made possible by movie magic or not, there is a nifty, super-cool show-stopper of a trick involving an important playing card get thrown around from Horsemen to Horsemen right underneath the security guards’ noses in a hermetically sealed computer room. The business with the secret society known as “The Eye” is finally revealed, and while the answer isn’t all that interesting, at least it no longer has to be teased. There’s also a tentative romance between Jack and Lula that feels like an unnecessary obligation checked off a list. Taken on the terms of an "Ocean's" movie or another “Fast and the Furious," in which the characters might as well be part of the Marvel superhero universe, “Now You See Me 2” has the biggest trick up its sleeve: it’s more purely entertaining than it has a right to be before vanishing from one’s memory.

Grade: B - 

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