“Hell will seem like a day at the spa before I’m done with the Horsemen,” a villain remarks ominously at one point in “Now You See Me 2,” the sequel to the surprise 2014 hit about a quartet of corruption-fighting magicians. The experience of viewers at the movie won’t be quite that bad, but it’s certainly more purgatorial than heavenly.
As you might recall, the first picture ended with the exposure and downfall of Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), the money-grubbing insurance magnate, and the incarceration of magic-debunking Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), as a result of the complicated devices of the magicians known as the Four Horsemen. Those performers were recruited—it’s ultimately revealed—by FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) to avenge the death of his father in a dangerous trick and the subsequent failure of Tressler’s company to pay on his insurance policy. This one opens with three of the four—“Danny” Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco)—keeping under the radar while Rhodes waits to get word of their next assignment. Their erstwhile comrade Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) has retired from the fray, but not to worry: she’s soon replaced by Lula (Lizzy Caplan) to provide the requisite female component.
Rhodes, who’s still with the FBI pretending to be trying to apprehend the Horsemen, at last receives a new job for them from their mysterious creator, The Eye: to reveal the privacy-destroying practices of a tech mogul. Their convoluted scheme to unmask him in public works, thanks to some hypnotic skill, but the tables are quickly turned against them by Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), a secretive behind-the-scenes manipulator who kidnaps them to Macau and compels them to steal a computer circuit that can de-encrypt any software program from a protective fortress. Meanwhile Rhodes’ cover is blown, and he’s compelled to free Bradley from jail to help him track down and rescue the Horsemen. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal much more about the twists and turns the plot takes from there, but one of the elements involves the introduction of Merritt’s estranged twin brother, also played by Harrelson of course, who has skills comparable to his sibling’s.
Like its predecessor, “See Me 2” is essentially a heist movie, but one in which each tension-generating stage in the operation involves some spectacular feat of prestidigitation, and the stakes grow even higher when a member of the troupe is put in imminent peril. Much of the effect is based on the sleight of hand that misdirects viewers as much as it does the Horsemen’s supposedly enthralled audiences, or—in the end—the villains. But to play at all fair, the scenario also has to explain how the tricks are pulled off, and make the explanation at least remotely plausible. There are a couple of instances in this case where new director Jon M. Chu and his colleagues manage this feat fairly well—the sequence about the group’s toppling of the tech magnate early on, for example, or the one that shows their theft of that computer circuit; these might not be convincing in any realistic sense, but they’re played out humorously enough to pass muster.
Elsewhere, though, they’re much less successful. Ruffalo’s big moment, involving the safe in which his father died, feels as though it comes from a different kind of movie entirely, and its denouement stretches credulity even beyond what’s permissible in such fare. And the finale takes the picture into territory where pleasant flights of fancy evolve into ponderous hokum. The coda, moreover, feels like pandering to an audience that doesn’t like seeing one of the most likable performers of the day presented as a crook.
The cast can be divided between those who try, however futilely, to maintain some semblance of credibility under difficult circumstances, and those who just go the frantic route. The former group includes Ruffalo, who’s entirely too serious for his own good; the typically suave Freeman; and even Eisenberg and Franco, who tone down their usual manic quality. The latter group features Harrelson, who mugs mercilessly in both his roles; Caplan, who’s so insistently kooky that you might want to slap her; and Radcliffe, who at least has the excuse that his zany turn is predicated on the role being written as a wacked-out Bond-style bad-guy. Caine shows up as the guy the Horsemen derailed the first time around, and does his customary shtick, this time with about as much conviction as he demonstrated in the notorious Steven Seagal flick, “On Deadly Ground.”
Naturally there’s a lot of visual pizzazz in the movie, with cinematographer Peter Deming and editor Stan Salfas doing their best to keep the glitzy action sequences as coherent as they can and sometimes succeeding: it’s the fault of the script, nor them, when things go off the rails. It must be said, though, that Sharon Seymour’s production design overdoes the garishness, and Brian Tyler’s score works too hard to energize things.
The original “Now You See Me” wasn’t any better than average, an overly busy picture that was nowhere near as smart as it pretended to be; the sequel, unfortunately, feels like pretty much the same trick repeated with even less finesse the second time around, to diminishing returns. Of course, the coda leaves the door open for a third installment; one can only hope that anemic box office returns for this entry will make it disappear before it materializes.