Now You See Me starts on a promising note but soon descends into a plot rife with predictable cliches, writes Raja Sen.
Imagine a magician.
Tall, charming, wreathed in mystery, and wearing a top hat that looks like it was woven from the shadows of ravens.
Striding purposefully to a big red box in the middle of the stage, he tells an immaculately picked anecdote, an ancient but fascinating old chestnut cleverly made contemporary, and proceeds to stuff the box with ochre and black strips of silk he peels nonchalantly out of his sleeves.
He talks of his time in the jungles. He talks of the majestic and rarely found Royal Bengal tiger, and how special it is to see one.
Especially up close.
Two shapely assistants, looking almost like twins, help seal the locks on the giant box, chained to the ground. The lights dim.
The stench of suspense fills the air. A word too magical to be typed out casually is spoken, there is a dazzling explosion and the lights come back to fuller strength than before.
The giant box shakes and the assistants look terrified. There is a deafening roar. The audience gasps. Silver of tongue, the magician enchants them all, and gets the girls to unfasten the locks. The box is lifted into the air…
And we see a rabbit.
There are few things more fundamentally disappointing than a weak magic trick. Especially when the promise is dizzying.
Louis Letterier, the man who made Clash Of The Titans, has for his new film a deck of cards tricked out with terrific actors: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco play grandstanding bank-heisting illusionists, Michael Caine bankrolls them, Morgan Freeman plays a man who debunks magicians for a living, while Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent play the detectives chasing down these unique criminals.
In sum, then: the Zombieland crew with a new redhead versus The Incredible Hulk and Shosanna, the deadliest Basterd. With Bruce Wayne’s top men in the middle of it all. What’s not to love?
A lot, it turns out. The film’s premise -- that of quirky magicians assembling to form a supergroup that robs banks -- is a rollicking one, and could have been spectacular in the hands of a Brian De Palma or a Steven Soderbergh. (Assuming, of course, that Christopher Nolan, the master who made The Prestige, wasn’t in the mood.)
And while you may call comparisons with these greater filmmakers unfair, they are also inevitable given the genre and the topnotch cast.
Things start off entertainingly enough as we meet the players and get a sense of their personalities. The lines aren’t particularly clever, but the actors zip through them like the seasoned Oscar-nominated lot that they are, giving us the sense of more going on than is immediately apparent.
Things begin with an admittedly impressive ‘first act’ with a genuinely preposterous explanation behind it, but there’s enough pace to be taken in by it all, to luxuriate in the buildup.
If that’s all you’re looking for, if you’re happy marvelling at the texture of the top hat, there’s genuine joy to be had in the first hour of this film.
But then there’s a car chase. A big and elaborate generic action-movie chase which disrupts the narrative entirely, and it never quite gets back on track. This is when you realise that despite the actors making things look clever and cheeky, they’re all just making the most of one-note characters being hustled through a rather juvenile plot.
Believe me, I get the idea of forgettable-popcorn-fun, but this film’s gradual and abrupt descent into predictable cliche is most saddening. It could have been so good. It could have been something that justified that cast. It could have been, well, magic.
The cast has a good time -- especially Eisenberg, who should immediately be cast as a comic-book supervillain, and Harrelson, as a sadistic mentalist -- but they don’t have enough room (or quotable lines) to conjure up something truly memorable.
They’re the only magicians the film gives some space to, however, with Fisher and Franco (who has a wonderfully wiry energy) mostly neglected -- rather unjustifiably given how interesting their characters are.
Caine and Freeman are actors who can make chewing the scenery look artful, but at some point evidently the script gets too silly for Caine to reappear: he simply leaves the film.
It’s wonderful to see the lovely Laurent here, in the role that Nolan would have given Marion Cotillard, but her dynamic with Ruffalo is given far too much screen-time, especially with Ruffalo really overdoing the disgruntled routine.
In the end, the patter wins over the illusion. There’s a lot of Hey and too little Presto, and seeing the trailer on the big-screen is more fulfilling than grabbing the whole. There are patches of fun, almost inevitably, but Now You See Me ends up a wasted mess populated with good actors.
As a particularly famous rabbit would say, “That’s all, folks.”