If there was an instruction manual for heist movies, the directions would include amusing the audience members with witty banter, delighting them with a clever crime and shocking them with one final never-saw-it-coming twist.
The makers of the entertaining and confounding “Now You See Me” have painstakingly followed orders, ensuring all the required components are in place. The problem is that, in focusing on what makes a good caper, director Louis Leterrier forgot about what makes a good movie: character development, carefully constructed tension and believable plot points.
The film opens with an “Ocean’s Eleven”-like montage introduction to four magicians. There’s the egotistical card trick pro Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, basically playing Mark Zuckerberg again), con man and lock picker extraordinaire Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), underwater escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson). The four are brought together by an unknown person who offers a reward if the magicians team up and carry out some large-scale deception.
Fast-forward a year, and the quartet, now known as the Four Horsemen, vamps on a Las Vegas stage preparing for the evening’s piece de resistance. Without leaving the arena, the illusionists appear to rob a Parisian bank and rain the stolen euros on the excited audience.
The outrageous setup more than suffices, and the film gets a lift from offbeat characters, especially Daniel and Merritt, and humorous dialogue. The camerawork is zippy, and the film pops with the promise of effervescent fun.
And yet, these lively shysters don’t turn out to be the main focus of the film. Following the Vegas show, the story swivels over to FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and his new partner from Interpol, Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent).
Dylan is a more-or-less lovable curmudgeon stock character, and Alma is his fresh-faced counterpoint. Agent Rhodes can’t prove how the Four Horsemen pulled off their thievery, but he’s set on halting any more wily lawbreaking at their next big show in New Orleans.
Dylan and Daniel are remarkably similar. They’re fun to watch with their sweet delivery of witticisms, but they’re also dismissive and self-righteous. So, the first complication becomes who we should pull for: the somewhat likable authority figures or the somewhat likable criminals? As we ponder that little puzzle, the story begins to get bogged down by a fledgling romance, a corrupt insurance company chief executive, a long-missing magician and the addition of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Thaddeus is a pompous myth debunker and TV personality, whose main role is to make Dylan look like an idiot while explaining (to him and to us) how the Four Horsemen pull off their stunts.
As the action kicks into gear, the story sprints to catch up. Regardless of how or why we got here, it’s at least fun to watch. The mostly bloodless hand-to-hand combat looks like Jason Bourne with just a dash of the Three Stooges. If the plot starts to feel a little outlandish, there’s the sense that a razzle-dazzle finale could bring the threads together. But it never comes. The big last heist erupts, then fizzles. And the requisite twist, while indeed a shock, opens holes in what plot development came before.
The bulk of movies in theaters this time of year promise action-packed visual splendor without requiring much brain power. “Now You See Me” purports to be something more, offering the former inside of a cinematic cryptogram. Now that would have been a neat trick.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains language, action and sexual content. 116 minutes.