Now You See Me (2013)
When I was young and gullible, my parents took me to shows which featured stage magicians. The old music halls were closing down but there were still two venues in Newcastle, our nearest city, which continued something approximating the old traditions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was lucky enough to work professionally with a man who did both stage and close-up magic. Suffice it to say, I remain in awe of the man’s manual dexterity. I never tired of watching him perform. Even when you know what you’re looking for, it’s still hard to see. So when a film based on large-scale illusions comes to the cinema, how can I not want to see how it’s done. We start off with an introduction to the core cast who are going to go on to do the big tricks. At the outset, they are J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) a street-magician who likes to pick up girls, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a shakedown hypnotist who likes to fund his lifestyle through gifts from his victims, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) a pickpocket thief who can run fast, and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), an escape artist with a faintly macabre twist involving piranas. They are all head-hunted and left a calling card. When the four turn up at the designated address, they are remotely given the blueprints for a stage magic show and become The Four Horsemen at Las Vegas. The highlight of this show is that they rob a bank in Paris for Etienne Forcier (José Garcia).
At the Vegas show, we have Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) as their sponsor and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). When they apparently complete the theft of 3.2 million euros, Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) an Interpol agent, comes to join the FBI Special Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). When they realise the problem in proving the magicians actually stole the money from the French bank, they ask Thaddeus for help. He used to be a magician and now makes his living telling the world how tricks are done. He deconstructs this bank heist and shows how the mark was selected from the audience and the money stolen (not from the bank, of course). But all this is supposition, so now the pair of investigators bide their time and wait for the magicians to make a mistake (Hah! As if that’s ever going to happen in a film like this!).
The Four Horsemen now move on to New Orleans for a $140 million distraction when they reveal Arthur Tressler as the head of an insurance company that bilked every member of the audience out of money for their insurance claims. So this is (at least) three tricks conceived years in the past that play out in the present. For the audience, the challenge is to work out what’s real and who’s responsible. Someone had to recruit these four “lost” magicians and give them the magic tricks to perform. Setting up the Paris trick was months in the planning and execution. We’re to take it on trust that the four would have done all this with the threat of criminal proceedings and jail waiting at the end, just for the prestige (borrowing that word from another film). I think I’m prepared to believe this. Some people, whether as performers or just “lucky” picks, would go along with a plan like this for the celebrity or notoriety it will bring. After all they are exposing injustice. Like Robin Hood, they have a higher purpose in their criminal activities.
At 115 minutes, it’s almost too long. It starts at a terrific pace and charges through the set-up and first magic show without pausing for breath. The narrative then gets a little fuzzy because we must necessarily keep track of the investigators, the sponsor, the magic consultant and the four. I was still breathless at the end of the “trick” in New Orleans but it all gets a little bloated when the FBI close in on the Four’s base in New York, we have the chase culminating in the crash on the bridge, and then the big disappearing act. That’s all not quite overblown. Then we’re back up to speed again for the whodunnit at the end. While watching, I don’t think it matters that certain prerequisites for the plot to work are outrageously unlikely if not actually absurd. Half the fun of films like this is suspending disbelief long enough to get the end end without the brain kicking in to pick holes in the detail of the plot. This plays a good game. I guessed early on which piece of the history was significant but, until we get the the end, we’re not told precisely how it all fits together in the present. The glue that sticks it all together is Morgan Freeman. He’s the wonderfully unreliable ex-magician who’s making money out of his promises to explain the tricks these Four are performing. Let’s be honest here. If anyone should be able to see how a trick is being done, it’s an ex-magician, right? Everyone else just slots into a strong ensemble cast with Michael Caine doing a cameo of his gangster as businessman persona. It’s not perfect as tricks go but, given the poor quality of the films so far in 2013, Now You See Me is one of the better efforts to hit the screens.