I’ve always found the prospect of a film about magic appealing, mainly because I’ve always enjoyed seeing magic tricks and it also usually means there’ll be twists and surprise endings in the film’s narrative. It promises an air of mystery and unpredictability that is lacking from films these days.
The magic aspect was partly why I went to see ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’ earlier this year which was a disappointment. However, as soon as I heard about the box-office success in America of ‘Now You See Me’ I eagerly awaited its release in Australia, notwithstanding the lukewarm reviews.
The film, directed by Louis Leterrier, begins by focussing on four separate magicians (Isla Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) who all have separate talents ranging from being escape artists to reading people’s minds. Summoned together my a mysterious unknown figure, they join up as ‘The Four Horsemen’ magic act which quickly gains widespread popularity with astonishing feats like being able to rob money from a bank in France and give it out to audience members in Las Vegas!
Unsurprisingly, the authorities begin to investigate, led by policeman Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent). Also around is an ex-magician (played by Morgan Freeman) who now debunks magicians for a living and and a business backer of ‘The Four Horsemen’ (Michael Caine) with a shady past. Can ‘The Four Horsemen’ be caught and who is the character who isn’t what they seem?
One would presume that the focus of the film would be on ‘The Four Horsemen’ magicians, but surprisingly the most screen time goes to Rhodes and his investigation of the case. This is somewhat regrettable as instead of a being a mysterious illusion-based film, it sometimes feels like a routine police story.
Also because of this focus, we hardly get to know any of ‘The Four Horsemen’. Indeed they remain types than actual characters, especially Eisenberg in his performance as the permanently smug, self-satisifed magician that illusionists are often portrayed as these days.
As it turns out the character with the most screentime is Ruffalo as the downtrodden Rhodes, seemingly doomed to forever be humiliated as he’s always one step behind the posse of magicians. In what could’ve easily been a rote performance with a fairly conventional character, Ruffalo gives an impressively intense performance, providing his character an anguish that wouldn’t be out of place in a low-budget indy drama. Ruffalo’s performance is all the more admirable as he could’ve easily given a ‘phone-it-in’ effort with what is a conventional character.
While the film never reaches any great heights, it is consistently entertaining. Leterrier keeps the pace of the narrative swiftly moving (perhaps in part so people won’t think about the plot for too long) almost as much as he likes to move the camera around. Leterrier’s directing suits the film well as his flashy style gives it a panache and style that compliments NYSM.
A very important aspect of the NYSM is the the magic tricks on a display. Generally they are ambitious, skilful and slick… perhaps too slick. As impressive as the illusion and trickery on display they’re at such an ambitious and extravagant level with dollops of CGI thrown in that they lose the element of realism and believability. Therefore while you’re impressed by the tricks, you’re not captivated by them.
Another very important aspect of NYSM is whether the inevitable twists and turns that reflection the magic-based deception and illusion are successfully conveyed in the film’s narrative. And on this aspect the film is more successful. The plot is rather convoluted and unlikely but it always maintains one’s interest. But where the narrative really comes together is in the twist ending which is impressively done and helps explain character behaviour with what occurred previously.
To be sure, ‘Now You See Me’ is no classic. It’s hectic, messy with unlikely plot points all over the place. But as a disposable piece of entertainment it provides good fun and it’s understandable why audiences have caught on to its appeal.