Here’s a pretty good idea for a movie. Take four master illusionists. Have them pull off some spectacular heists. Even better, have them incorporate the heists in their act. It’s an act, you might say, that consists of pulling robbery out of a hat. Throw in some very appealing actors — Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Mélanie Laurent — and the idea becomes even more promising.
Unfortunately, the idea turns into “Now You See Me,” and the magic gets transformed into reality, one that’s big, noisy, slick, and empty.
The illusionists call themselves the Four Horsemen — though only three are men. Isla Fisher, an escape artist, is odd woman out. Eisenberg, the leader, is one highly cocky magician. If Mark Zuckerberg had preferred actual prestidigitation to the financial kind, he’d be Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas. Woody Harrelson (the best thing in the movie — as so often is the case) is a mentalist. Dave Franco, as a pickpocket/general factotum, doesn’t have much to do. He seems to be waiting for his older brother, James, to arrive as Oz and one-up Atlas.
A kind of prelude introduces the quartet individually, each of them getting to show what he (or she) can do. A mysterious invitation brings them together. Is it from Caine, who’ll become the Horsemen’s promoter once they’re united? Freeman, a former magician who’s become wildly successful with TV specials and DVDs that show him debunking magic acts and revealing magicians’ tricks? Or maybe it’s the Freemasons? Go ahead laugh, but in one of the more head-scratching twists in a movie full of them, “Now You See Me” makes noises about an organization called The Eye of Horus. It dates back to ancient Egypt (of course it does) and comes perilously close to veering into Dan Brown territory. As in Brown’s novels, everything fits together at the end, but hardly anything makes sense.
The Horsemen are a hit. We next meet them headlining at the MGM Grand. In the movie’s most impressive set-piece, they pull off what seems to be a 3.2 million euro bank job in Paris — while remaining onstage, no less. This is one time where what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas. Clearly, CGI, computer-generated imagery, has nothing on MGI, magic-generated imagery.
FBI agent Mark Ruffalo arrives on the scene to investigate. This is surely the only G-man in bureau history to boast a stubbly beard. He’s joined by Laurent, who’s on loan from Interpol. Both are baffled. That’s where Freeman comes in, explaining to them (and the audience) how the Horsemen did it. This is the basic structure of the movie, actually: capers connected by Freeman explicating. Granted, there’s no voice more pleasurably listened to explicating than Freeman’s. Even so, that’s an awful lot of explication.
To compensate for the talkiness, director Louis Leterrier keeps his camera hyperactive. Leterrier’s previous film was “Clash of the Titans.” Although no kraken gets released here, an awful lot of visual nervous energy does. The editing of the action sequences is an insult to the idea of narrative clarity.
From the beginning, the movies have been thought of as a kind of magic. One of the medium’s greatest early pioneers, viewers of “Hugo” will recall, really was a magician, Georges Méliès. At least since 1903 and “The Great Train Robbery,” theft has been a big part of the movies, too. So “Now You See Me” is a kind of arranged movie marriage, bringing together magic and larceny. Or maybe it’s better described as a ménages a trois, movie-wise, thanks to the Vegas connection. “Ocean’s 11” + magic = “Now You See Me.” Now that would be real Hollywood hocus-pocus.