'Now You See Me 2': Film Review

More hard sell than abracadabra.

Daniel Radcliffe and Lizzy Caplan join the magic-caper franchise’s ensemble cast in this sequel.

Sleight-of-hand is the name of the game in Now You See Me 2 — not just for the renegade magician characters, but for the filmmakers. No less than in the glossy caper’s 2013 predecessor, the plot rides a surging tide of ridiculousness and culminates in a pileup of unconvincing explanations. As practitioners of prestidigitation take on the wielders of malevolent corporate power, anyone tempted to give the story’s ostentatious twists much thought should understand the likelihood of headache. By the time the story’s final revelation has been pulled out of the hat, the only thing that’s certain is the eventual materialization of Now You See Me 3.

But if this chapter is ultimately more convoluted than spellbinding, it offers sequences of crackerjack illusion, as you might expect from a project where David Copperfield serves as co-producer. Like the feature that kicked off the unlikely franchise, the new film should have no trouble razzle-dazzling a healthy share of popcorn dollars.

With Jon M. Chu at the helm, the movie reconvenes most of the cast from the first go-round, the key additions being Daniel Radcliffe and Lizzy Caplan. The latter, essentially taking the place of the departed Isla Fisher, joins Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco in the Four Horsemen — a hotshot Vegas act whose elaborate magic routines expose and bilk corporate scoundrels.

For Caplan’s role as Lula, Ed Solomon’s busy screenplay takes a few well-placed jabs at the idea of the token female cohort, and the actress puts those digs across with just the right spunk. But this is a movie populated by glib character types rather than fully fleshed-out people. That’s true even for the story’s intended emotional engine, Mark Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes, a soulful-eyed composite of traumatic backstory and drive for justice.

The Horsemen’s boss, Dylan has put the troupe on hold for a year since enacting revenge against magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Dylan’s cover as an FBI agent is unraveling under the scrutiny of two colleagues (Sanaa Lathan, David Warshofsky) just as the Four Horsemen come out of hiding to hijack a high-tech company’s product launch and expose the CEO’s privacy-threatening schemes. The quartet is, in turn, hijacked in flamboyant fashion. That leads them to Macau, where the movie gets a shot of cartoonish zest from a bearded Radcliffe’s super-rich baddie and his quest to recapture a super-duper computer chip.

As MacGuffins go, that chip is exceptionally absurd. But it’s also at the center of an exceptionally diverting set piece, in which Chu and DP Peter Deming niftily parse an extended bit of cardistry by the Horsemen, showing us each step of the trick without losing the sense of artfulness or the suspense of the situation. Chu, whose directing credits include a couple of Step Up features, Justin Bieber docs and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, sells the sequence’s pizazz without pushing it too hard. The same is true of an early scene where Eisenberg’s character moves seamlessly through a string of aliases while infiltrating a public event.

Elsewhere, Chu keeps things moving at a smooth pace that wisely discourages contemplation, abetted by the straightforward sheen of Deming’s widescreen lensing. The production design by Sharon Seymour is a fluid counterpart to the plot's uneasy mix of magic and heightened reality: a lyrical New York subway tunnel, the bright bustle of an open-air market in Macau, and the in-between of an ancient magic shop (based on an actual store) that’s run by a young man (Jay Chou) and his grandmother (Tsai Chin) and proves, unsurprisingly, crucial to the action.

Compared with the first film, this one embraces the premise’s essential preposterousness, although not necessarily to winning effect. Case in point is the unwelcome arrival on the scene of Harrelson’s character’s evil twin. It’s a setup that’s as hard to take for the audience as it is for Harrelson’s character. But at least it takes a chance, compared with the predictable turns by Freeman and Michael Caine (as a nefarious insurance magnate), doing what they do.

All aspects of the movie, including Brian Tyler’s otherwise overstated score, click when the Horsemen are doing their magic. It’s then that the characters get to drop the snarky goading and shticky putdowns that sub for personality, and the actors persuasively show how the magicians come alive in performance. Despite the so-what of the story surrounding them, those scenes build a certain level of anticipation for the expected piece de resistance that will cap the feature. It turns out to be as much about moviemaking as about anything in the story. And like the tortuous plot, with its shifting line between heroes and villains, whether that final illusion is worth all the work is another matter.

Production companies: Summit Entertainment, TIK Films, K/O Paper Products
Distributor: Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin
Director: Jon M. Chu 
Screenwriter: Ed Solomon
Producers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Bobby Cohen
Executive producers: Kevin De La Noy, Louis Leterrier, Ed Solomon, Qiuyun Long
Director of photography: Peter Deming
Production designer: Sharon Seymour
Costume designer: Anna B. Sheppard
Editor: Stan Salfas
Composer: Brian Tyler
Visual effects supervisor: Matt Johnson
Co-producer: David Copperfield
Casting: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood

Rated PG-13, 129 minutes