WHAT IS magic? Deception for entertainment, says J Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), leader of The Four Horsemen, the quartet of magicians who are the protagonists of Louis Leterrier’s latest film, Now You See Me. It is suspension of disbelief at its purest; while cinema, like all narrative fiction, purports to be truth told through a lie, magic focusses on the lie. The audience knows that it’s not really real, but is willing to go along for the ride and watch their concept of reality being challenged headlong.
The same can be said about the heist film as it has evolved over the past decade or so. When you watch Ocean’s Eleven, or Twelve, or Thirteen, you know the elaborate scheme is too elaborate to succeed in the real world, but you go along anyway because you know that it isn’t about how things are done, but that they are. Such films are all about the plot convoluting itself just when you think you know what is going on. It is, as Roger Ebert wrote about Steven Soderbergh after Ocean’s Eleven, “serious pianists sometimes (pounding) out a little honky-tonk, just for fun”.
It is, therefore, surprising that what stands out most about Now You See Me, a heist film about magic, is the silliness of it. The film insists throughout that it will not hesitate from pulling the rug from under the plot whenever necessary or convenient. Atlas says as much, telling fbi agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) that just when he thinks he’s got him, Atlas will appear behind him. By putting the audience on guard, the film has only itself to blame when they are unconvinced. The twists are increasingly ridiculous, the explanations increasingly tenuous. The final reveal is marvellous, but leaves too many threads dangling. Maybe if Leterrier had taken a leaf out of his magicians’ book and employed some misdirection with actual character development or ethical dilemmas, our attention wouldn’t be on the actual trick.
But perhaps there is some misdirection involved, since, more than a heist film with all its attendant plot headaches, Leterrier has actually made the kind of film he is most comfortable with. Much like his hugely successful Transporter films, the plot in Now You See Me is merely an apparatus on which to situate his skill for shooting slick action sequences. The three magic tricks serve as three set-pieces, with the rest of the movie essentially a long chase sequence (with the occasional incident of the chaser becoming the chased) to get to those points. It is in these moments of mindless action that the film is the most assured, with its two pedigreed cinematographers, Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong (who happens to be an accomplished magician), holding fort. In a way, the film is reminiscent of Wanted — Amundsen’s magnum opus — for the extent to which the story is subordinate to style.
That being said, the casting, if a little safe, has its merits. You get to watch Michael Caine threatening Morgan Freeman. You get to see Eisenberg being the smug, arrogant genius, bewildering straight man Ruffalo (“First rule of magic: always be the smartest guy in the room”). You get Freeman (always worth two mentions) doing exposition, and then you see him fleshing out his character to incorporate shades of grey that he rarely gets in such films.
There’s probably a sequel in the works — too many loose ends, and the lack of a coherent ending leaves much room — but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Like its ephemeral title suggests, Now You See Me is a fine way to spend an afternoon without worrying about what is to come. Much like children at a magic show.