Now You See Me is a movie I desperately wanted to like. In the midst of a season that Hollywood has exclusively dedicated to superhero movies and Will Smith vanity projects, Summit Entertainment releases a dialogue-driven, heist flick with one of the stronger ensemble casts in recent memory. Now You See Me isn’t a modern summer action blockbuster, and that makes it refreshing. On the other hand, the screenplay is downright infuriating.
The movie follows FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) as he pursues a crew of bank robbing magicians across the country from Las Vegas to New Orleans to New York. In a pre-title sequence our four anti-heroes are introduced individually in a manner reminiscent of how the heroes were introduced in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. First there’s J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a top-notch illusionist; there’s mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson); there’s the gorgeous Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), a former assistant to Atlas who is now a capable magician in her own right; and finally there’s Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a guy who’s really more of an outright conman and criminal than a magician. Each one is shown performing his or specialty before being enlisted into the services of an anonymous magician.
One year later, the Four Horsemen are mega-celebrities on the magic circuit, headlining sold-out Vegas shows. One night they promise their greatest trick yet: they intend to rob a bank. They pick a man out of the audience, seemingly transport him halfway around the planet to a bank vault in Paris, France, and direct him to flip a switch. He does and millions of dollars in euros are dumped on the audience back in Vegas. The four magicians announce that they have robbed the bank, and sure enough, a bank vault in Paris is discovered to be completely empty. The crew announces their intention to follow this trick with an even more daring caper, and they exit the stage. This incident understandably brings them to the attention of Mark Ruffalo’s scruffy FBI agent and a sensual Interpol agent played by French actress Melanie Laurent.
The most striking thing about this casting ensemble is that while each of these actors have attained various levels of fame and critical respectability, this doesn’t seem like a crew a studio would typically hire to support a summer blockbuster. And yet the cast gels perfectly. After factoring in a supporting cast that includes Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, it becomes clear that director Louis Leterrier has possibly assembled the most perfect cast of 2013. Furthermore, Louis Leterrier continues to solidify his reputation as a decent action director by staging a number of daring foot chases, car chases, and fist fights as our anti-heroes outsmart and evade the alphabet soup of agencies pursuing them.
However, Now You See Me suffers from massive plot holes and complete lapses in logic. The Four Horsemen have devised a series of interconnected heists that, in order to work, depend upon the FBI reacting very specifically and illogically. For starters, they kick off their crime spree by announcing to the world that they intend to rob a specific bank in a specific city halfway across the world; then that bank promptly loses millions in currency. Our protagonists’ master plan requires them to be apprehended by the FBI, but released because there isn’t sufficient evidence to show they actually robbed the bank themselves.
Now take a second to think about that. In order to continue their spree, they have to be apprehended and released by the appropriate authorities. However, they gain the attention of law enforcement by confessing to a robbery they’ve just committed. Even if the FBI and Interpol couldn’t prove that the four magicians physically robbed the bank, they could certainly prove that the magicians were in on a conspiracy to rob the bank. Hell, they have an empty bank vault and a confession given by all four performers made in front of a sold-out audience. People have been convicted of felonies on substantially less evidence.
In the real world, step one of the master plan would be a complete dud. These four guys would spend the next several years being held in lockup while the U.S. government and the French government haggle over where the trial needs to be held. The rest of the Rube Goldberg contraption of heists would never be enacted. But in this movie, the FBI cuts our anti-heroes loose for lack of evidence and then agents continue to behave as if they are the Keystone Cops. A final plot twist provides some context for the FBI’s staggering incompetence, but said plot twist also raises more questions than answers.
And that’s the problem: If you’re going to write a movie where your protagonists are the smartest guys in the room, then they need to be legitimately brilliant. The antagonists have to be intelligent, too, or else the story merely becomes infuriating. Screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt clearly want their audience to be utterly impressed with the quick wit and lightning fast reflexes of the Four Horsemen, but I could only focus on how the story required the opposition to be utterly incompetent.
Like its subject matter, Now You See Me is all surface. The cast is brilliant and the production values are high. Director Louis Leterrier keeps the proceedings fast paced and engaging. But then there’s that brain-dead script. The closer you look, the crappier the movie becomes.