Tuesday, June 14, 2016

In Theaters: NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Jon M. Chu. Written by Ed Solomon. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin, Ben Lamb, Richard Laing. (PG-13, 129 mins)

Sure, 2013's enjoyable NOW YOU SEE ME was a sleeper hit, grossing $120 million in the US, but was anyone demanding more? Apparently so, as it did almost double that overseas. In what will go down as one of the least necessary sequels of the year, the thoroughly superfluous, $90 million NOW YOU SEE ME 2 isn't even inspired enough to be subtitled NOW YOU DON'T, and is the kind of perfunctory, clock-punching follow-up that makes you retroactively like the first one a little less. That film was directed by Luc Besson protege Louis Leterrier, a sure-handed pro who kept the story engaging and fast-moving, and really conveyed a knowledge and appreciation of magic. In the hands of STEP UP 2: THE STREETS, STEP UP 3D and JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER director Jon M. Chu, whose most recent film is 2015's flop-turned-inevitable-cult-movie JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, NOW YOU SEE ME 2's chief goal seems to be how many nonsensical dei ex machina it can pull out of its ass like rabbits out of a hat. NOW YOU SEE ME had the magician team of The Four Horsemen using their skills to bankrupt greedy and corrupt insurance titan Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), whose company denied claims to scores of Hurricane Katrina victims. Tressler figures into the second half of this sequel in a way that you'll figure out long before the Four Horsemen do, but initially, the heroes--illusionist J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and presumed-dead street magician Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), along with new addition Lula May (Lizzy Caplan)--have been in hiding, but are called back to public view at the behest of The Eye, the top-secret society of magicians. Their assignment: expose tech billionaire Owen Case (Ben Lamb) as a fraud intending to use his software to steal the personal info of millions of his customers and sell it on the black market. But someone else hijacks their presentation, also publicly outing rogue FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who's still pretending to pursue the Four Horsemen for the benefit of his boss (Sanaa Lathan), even though he was revealed to be the enigmatic Fifth Horsemen at the end of the first film.

The figure behind all the mayhem is Case's former partner Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), who faked his death a year earlier and has spent that time in Macau putting into play his Blofeldian plot to control the world's economy with a data chip device. Now a fugitive, Rhodes springs imprisoned magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) from custody and takes him to Macao to help get to the bottom of Mabry's plan. Of course, Bradley manages to get away from Rhodes--who blames Bradley for the magic trick mishap death of his father 30 years earlier--while the Four Horsemen pull off a complicated heist of the chip device from a top secret facility, with constant double-crosses coming from Mabry as well as Chase McKinney, Merritt's duplicitous and more-than-slightly effeminate twin brother played entirely too broadly by Harrelson, with a curly wig and a toothy grin that suggests what might've transpired had there ever been a hypothetical Marjoe Gortner one-man show based on the biography Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story.

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 is a mess. There's some of the charm of the first film in the camaraderie between the Four Horsemen, particularly some ballbusting between Atlas and McKinney, and it seems Eisenberg and Harrelson are having a good time. The globetrotting plot goes from NYC to Macao to London and makes a lot of noise, but not much sense. There's no sense of magic to a film where the tricks and illusions are all CGI'd or revealed to be some kind of absurdly complex conspiracy. Its twists and turns are such that the characters on the receiving end of them--be they the FBI, Mabry, Rhodes, various security guards, or Tressler--have to be completely incompetent idiots to fall for them (again in Tressler's case). The heist of the chip device starts out clever but becomes too belabored and improbable to even laugh at. The script, written by a returning Ed Solomon (BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, MEN IN BLACK), has little consistency, especially with Freeman's Stevens, whose purpose and loyalties change with little or no logic or flow whenever the movie needs them to (he and Caine are just here for the paid vacation to Macau). Taiwanese singer and actor Jay Chou, who you probably haven't thought of since his turn as Kato in the forgotten Seth Rogen disaster THE GREEN HORNET, is on hand as another new Horseman once they arrive in Macau (his character's grandmother is played by veteran actress Tsai Chin, best known as the treacherous daughter of Christopher Lee in the 1960s FU MANCHU movies), but he barely figures into the story and only seems to be there to satisfy a Chinese co-production deal with TIK Films. He likely has more to do in the version being released in Asia, but his complete insignificance to the film only highlights the fact that more work went into negotiating the business deal than coming up with a coherent story to justify its existence.

Dumbest of all is the opening at the expose of Case, where the Four Horseman are posing as waiters, bartenders, and security staff to get behind the scenes. These are world-famous magicians and international fugitives and the subject of ongoing media scrutiny and yet, here they are, undisguised, milling about a highly publicized event at a massive arena for America's biggest tech mogul, TV cameras everywhere, and not a single person recognizes them. Even dumber, right there at the event is Rhodes, openly talking to the Horsemen near the stage, in full view of everyone even though his sole case seems to scouring the ends of the earth to find them. Compare that to a scene later on in London when each of the magicians just show up at various street corners to set up their final takedown of Mabry as everyone stops what they're doing and whips out their phones because they recognize them as globally-known celebrities. Everything in this film relies on contrivance and convenience. NOW YOU SEE ME was hard to swallow, but it was a fun movie that had some inspired moments. The sequel turns its heroes into a combination of David Copperfield, Jason Bourne, 007, and Wikileaks. Honestly, by the end, I had no idea what was going on and I really didn't care. And it was upon that realization that I felt a kinship to Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine that I will likely never feel again.

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