'Now You See Me': Film Review

 A flashy caper pulled by a gang of magicians leaves a fleeting effect.

Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson star in Louis Letterier's latest film that gives no suspense or rooting interest.

Now You See Me is a superficially diverting but substance-free concoction, a would-be thriller as evanescent as a magic trick and one that develops no suspense or rooting interest because the characters possess all the substance of invisible ink. Propelled by hyperkinetic action, constantly swooping camera moves and a techno score that never quits, this attractively cast caper makes such a big point of things not being what they seem that, by process of elimination, you can hardly help guessing who's really behind everything. This Summit release could do reasonably well out of the gate but will have trouble holding its own against heavy summer competition.

The cast of characters in this quick-fingered charade consists of hustlers, con artists and tricksters, the core group being (despite the fact that one of them is a woman) The Four Horsemen, entertainers so popular that they can draw sell-out crowds in giant arenas. There's cocky illusionist Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), wise-ass mentalist Merritt (Woody Harrelson), feisty escape artist Henley (Isla Fisher) and scamming pickpocket Jack (Dave Franco). Brought together by an unseen hand with an eye to melding their skills to spectacular effect, the flashy quartet takes to the Las Vegas Hilton stage with the announced intention of robbing a bank before the spectators's eyes.

In a rapid-fire mash-up of high-tech gizmos and flashy showbiz razzmatazz, a randomly selected French audience member dons some futuristic headgear and is teleported to his bank in Paris, whereupon the millions in paper money in a vault there magically rains down on the delighted onlookers. Among those in admiring attendance are august figures of uncertain intent, the show's financier Tressler (Michael Caine) and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a debunker of magicians' tricks who discreetly videos the proceedings.

The unique heist naturally attracts the attention of law enforcement, most significantly that of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol officer Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), whose attitudes and methods are at odds from the outset. The sweaty, antsy Dylan looks like an uncouth bumbler alongside the appealing Frenchwoman and is warned in no uncertain terms by Thaddeus that the group's next show, in New Orleans, is just a set-up for something else.

The smart-mouthed script by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt challenges the audience to outguess the screenwriters by tossing around such phrases as “targeted deception” and “the closer you look the less you see” and encourages skepticism about the true intentions of the characters. But despite all the frenetic activity onscreen, interest in the participants wanes quickly because all you ever see of these people are fronts, postures they've adopted to position themselves in the illusionist world they occupy, which even in this pretend world confines them to cardboard-cutout status that inspires no audience investment.

It's all about the game, the tricks, with no deeper context or involving motivation other than a vaguely stated impulse for Robin Hood-ish redistribution of wealth. As the Horsemen are not in it purely for profit, almost any catalyst for what they do, however simplistic, would have been helpful. Most plausibly, they could have been playful anarchists or, more provocatively, a deliberately mixed combo of anti-big finance and anti-big government types. Most typically, they could have been people with individual grudges they could settle through their joint actions. Most cartoon characters have more backstory than these Horsemen have.

In the absence of anything to hang real characterizations upon, the actors at least supply plenty of juice: Eisenberg's slight-of-hand artist is entertainingly arrogant and obnoxious, Harrelson's hypnotist is still dealing with an iffy past and Fisher's escapologist is loaded with chutzpah. Franco's streetwise, Artful Dodger type remains more on the periphery. Among the alleged good guys, Ruffalo's eternally frustrated federal investigator would have immediately been dismissed by J. Edgar Hoover over hygiene issues alone. His Euro counterpart, Laurent, however, has no such problems, and is responsible for the only measurable amount of warmth the film exudes.

Letterier, of Transporter and Clash of the Titans fame, directs as if inspired by The Voice and other performance-oriented big-audience shows, swinging and darting the camera up, down, around and through the action in nearly every shot as if to disallow even a moment's certainty as to where one stands in relation to the game of speed chess being enacted in this pretend world. In line with Thaddeus's compulsion to demystify the Horsemen's tricks, the filmmakers ultimately reveal how the magicians pull off their stunts (in a combination of “real” magic and, inevitably, CGI). But like most magic acts, the effect is over in a moment and leaves no impact. Now you see this movie, then it's gone.

Opens: Friday, May 31 (Summit Entertainment)

Production: K/O Paper Products

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Melanie Laurent, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Jose Garcia, Common, David Warshofsky

Director: Louis Letterier

Screenwriters: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt, story by Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt

Producers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Bobby Cohen

Executive producers: Boaz Yakin, Michael Schaefer, Stan Wlodkowski

Directors of photography: Larry Fong, Mitchell Amundsen

Production designer: Peter Wenham

Costume designer: Jenny Eagan

Editors: Robert Leighton, Vincent Tabaillon

Music: Brian Tyler

Senior visual effects supervisor: Nicholas Brooks

PG-13 rating, 116 minutes