Directed by Louis Leterrier
Spoiler ahead, not explicitly stated but very heavily implied
‘What is magic? Magic is deception, but deception designed to delight, to entertain and inspire. It is about belief, faith and trust. Without those qualities, magic as an art from would no longer exist.’
This is the message the enigmatic four horsemen preach to a cheering and adoring audience near the climax of the film. It is one of the many messages in this film that confuses me.
To me, there is almost always the shared between the magician and the audience that the trick is just that, a trick. The thrill comes not from seeing a miracle but from seeing an illusion, and, despite your best attempts to see through the hidden contraptions or ignore the misdirection you find yourself duped and outwitted, once again falling to that oh so familiar question: ‘How did they do it?’. In this respect, if you, like I, enjoy magic in this way, then your enjoyment is based upon cynicism, scepticism and doubt, the complete antonyms of belief, faith and trust that the film preaches. Indeed, from the film’s perspective, if you approach magic and illusionism with this sceptical mind-set then you are as much a magic-philistine as the grouchy FBI agent who is the protagonist of this film. As far as this story is concerned, the question ‘how did they do it?’ is something you shouldn’t concern yourself with, and this riles me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who haven’t seen it, this film revolves around the exploits of four bank robbing magicians and the authorities who attempt to bring them down. These magicians each represent individual genres of magic: we have Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenburg) who represents street magic and card tricks, Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson) who is the token mentalist and hypnotist, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) who is skilled with sleight of hand and lock-picking and finally Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) who supplies the age-old staple of magic that is computer-generated imagery.
Now, you may be thinking ‘Calvin my dear lad, computer generated imagery isn’t a staple of magic, surely you must mean escapology?’ Well, I’ll have you know that CGI has been one of the central pillars of magic since Ancient Egyptian times. As well as the ‘cup and ball trick’, one common illusion of the time was the ‘floating goat’. The magician’s assistant would bring the goat to the front of the stage where the audience could all get a good look at it. Once it was agreed that this was your standard conventional goat the magician would reveal their intention to cause it to levitate. The magician would murmur a few superficial spells to create an atmosphere and the crowd would subside into a hush of silent expectation. Then, when the silence was held for just the right length of time, two men dressed in lime-green morph-suits would sneak soundlessly on to the stage and raise the goat into the air. This trick reliably astounded audiences for almost five millennia, confusing scientists and scholars alike. It is only in recent years, where CGI has a greater presence in the public consciousness, where the effectiveness of the trick has diminished. (And if you think I’m lying, then you are clearly forgetting the core principles of magic. Remember, magic ‘is about belief, faith and trust’.)
The film starts of hopeful. We are given a quick introduction to each of the four going about their magic business as they are each slipped a mysterious calling card. They follow the address on the card and arrive together at an abandoned warehouse, and, after a bit of that nostalgic CGI magic for the history buffs, holographic blueprints appear in the air to which our four horsemen say things like ‘wow’ and ‘they’re incredible’ (One of my favourite movie tropes by the way. I’d need at least half an hour and a couple sheets of A4 to doodle on to make head or tail of blueprints like that). We then cut to abstract amount of time later and the four horsemen are now well established and are about to perform their live Las Vegas shows ultimate trick: to rob a bank. We are no longer in the magician’s perspective, we see the trick as the audience would see it. A member of the audience is selected at random. They bring him to the centre of the stage and give him a helmet camera to put on. In a flash, he disappears, and we see through the camera feed that he is now inside his own bank in France in front of several large stacks of money. He is told to write his name on his ticket and place it in the centre of the room. The money gets sucked up through vent in ceiling and seemingly travels all the way to their theatre in a matter of seconds where it falls like confetti onto the delighted audience. In the next scene we are introduced to our protagonists Detective Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) and it is revealed that the Crédit Républicain in Paris was indeed robbed and seeing as it was real euros that rained down on the audience of that Las Vegas show the four horsemen are arrested as suspects of the robbery.
With the proverbial cards laid out I lean forward in my chair and speculate on this intriguing centrepiece the film has given me. I start to pin the strings and photographs to the cork-board of my mind. Was the first-person footage actually live? Was the audience member a plant? Are the euros that were dropped in the show the same euros stolen from the bank in Paris? Was that bank even robbed, or have the FBI been fed false information?
As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered trying to figure it out; Morgan Freeman explains it all in the next scene. Thank you, Morgan Freeman. Thanks.
I’ve never wanted Morgan Freeman to shut up before and I felt bad for even thinking it. Freeman plays professional magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley, a documentary presenter who has quite laughably ended the careers of numerous ‘two-bit hustler’ magicians by revealing their magic tricks to be nothing but illusions and special effects. I love the concept that in this world calling out a magician as a charlatan can end their career. I wonder if in the Now You See Me universe the popularity of Thunderbirds went downhill when everyone realised they were puppets, or whether Walking with Dinosaurs ratings sank when the tabloids revealed that all the dinosaurs were animated. This magic debunker is equivalent to that bit-character in Family Guy who decrees Peter a ‘big fat phony’ when he sets a keyboard in a shop to auto-play.
Now, what should have happened when the expert Bradley was called in was that he had his theory of how they did it, they wandered the empty stage and talked it through, and then found out he had it wrong. That would have been a great hook to keep the plot thread going. Instead, as with many of the other set-ups in this film, this trick is explained before I got chance to try and figure ‘how they did it’. (Admittedly, there is part of a trick later on that gives you enough info to work it out before-hand, but I was so desensitised by all the CGI tricks throughout the picture that I had concluded they’d long since given up on lending their illusions a rational framework by then.) From this point, the plot becomes a cat and mouse chase with the four horsemen seemingly always a step ahead of the two investigators while Morgan Freeman sits smugly, knowing everything going on. And then the movie ends, and I get mugged.
‘What if all this was just leading up to us being mugged in central park at 2am’ jokes the token mentalist McKinney, which it turns out was misdirection, as it was in fact me who was soon to be mugged by the final plot twist. The best plot twists in films are the ones that fundamentally change the way you see the film the second time you watch it. These are the Fight Club’s and Sixth Sense’s, the films that you can pick out all the little plot crumbs that you missed the second time through, the films that you can’t help see differently, the films that could potentially give you just enough clues to work out the reveal ahead of time. Now You See Me is not one of those films. I have seen this picture twice and the knowledge of the twist made the plot actually make less sense the second time round. There is a reason Poirot was never revealed to be the murderer: because it would rend the whole story and all his investigation work meaningless. This is another example of the film rebuking cynical thought. If you don’t ask questions, you may enjoy it. Indeed, as already established, magic is about belief, faith and trust; you’re not meant to ask ‘how?’.
But what about the rest of the film? There were some good visual parts, unfortunately they were mostly surrounding those magic tricks that were clearly not grounded in any real-world illusions, though the few tricks that clearly were real were fun. I could talk about the actor’s performances. All members of the cast were identifiably behaving in a fashion that defined themselves as personalities separate from their individual selves. In other words, they were professional actors performing their trade. Good job. I enjoyed how the four horsemen entered the stage like they were judges from X Factor. What else… There was a cameraman who was very good at walking in circles. The director must have noticed his skills as numerous shots whirl around the focal point of the scene at that slightly too fast rate that made you want to call to your mum when your older cousin recklessly spun the roundabout again and you just wanted to get off. Also, the music was alright. I won’t be getting the soundtrack any time soon, but it served its purpose well enough. And I think that just about covers it. So, onwards now, to the conclusion.
I am the sort of person that takes apart clicky-pens. I like to feel the mechanism, to peer through the convex plastic casing and watch the parts move back and forth, to sculpt a model of the pen in my mind and picture how it may work. This film is telling me ‘Stop that Calvin’ it says, ‘You’ll brake the pen if you do that,’ to which I say ‘So what if I do? You made this pen for me to enjoy, I’ll enjoy it how I wish.’ But to my dismay it is not a clicky-pen at all, what Now You See me gave me was a smelly gel-pen in a clicky-pen casing. The button at the end is a dud, and when I take it apart all I get is glittery wet fingers.
I give this film a 2/7 for promising me a stimulating mystery but horribly messing up the answers