One character in Now You See Me 2 calls Macau “the Vegas of Asia.” Consider this, then, the Fremont Street of sequels: a curiosity whose novelty fades fast and only gets cheesier, sadder and more shamelessly desperate to please the longer you linger.
The 2013 original served up a spry summer surprise that connected with bantamweight, but confident, punches and played fair (if fancifully) with its mystery of the Four Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) — whose celebrity glitz masked pretenses to modern-day Robin Hood thievery. Only a black-inked ledger and Summit Entertainment’s franchise envy warranted a sequel; after all, the mystery of who facilitated the Four Horsemen, and the specific reasons why, were cleverly solved. (Even now, its twists should go unspoiled.)
The original raised playful hell with the sort of tells we scan for in films like these. Here, returning screenwriter Ed Solomon and new director Jon M. Chu instead play a painful, 129-minute game of “ … Or Have They?” As in, these new villains have the Four Horsemen where they want them … or have they? Or Solomon and Chu haven’t undercut the finale by revealing two identities too soon … or have they? Or they haven’t also exhumed the Magical Asian trope … or have they? You’ll hope the dullest development, deployed to double Harrelson’s screen time, is one of his character’s hypnotic suggestions writ large. If only …
Tagging in for Fisher is Lizzy Caplan, a gifted comedienne who is clearly relishing the chance to giggle at her own grotesque illusions as the group’s newbie. The rest of the Four Horsemen have been in hiding since the first film’s events, as yet undetected by the FBI’s intense, multi-year manhunt (which doesn’t keep Eisenberg’s character from visibly venturing out to Shake Shack).
Under auspices of the Eye — a mysteriously omniscient secret society of legendary illusionists — the Horsemen are tasked to resurface and take down Octa, a tech company pilfering users’ private data from its latest smartphone. Symbolism in the original felt light and playful, but Solomon labors breathlessly here to point how the perils of inattention can be exploited for far more than street-hustle prestidigitation.
When their plan crumbles, the Horsemen find themselves alive only at the whim of a bratty billionaire (Daniel Radcliffe) who wants them to steal the Magic Broomstick — a double-secret computer chip so poorly named you will never again complain about other movies’ goofy names for double-secret computer chips.
Seemingly chosen for the irony of an actor from a hit movie (or eight) about magic not playing a magician like everyone else, Radcliffe is among the most horribly miscast “fearsome” psychopaths since Stephen Dorff in Blade. His ineptitude makes the film’s unpleasantly murderous edge more odious.
Meanwhile, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) resumes his quest to find the Horsemen, while jailed skeptic Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and disgraced mogul Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) plot revenge against the righteous quartet.
Not even Ruffalo, one of our era’s eminently root-worthy and rumpled leads, seems interested. Gone too, are laced barbs between the latter two actors; when one grouses about not getting to finish his lobster, you suspect he’s complaining to Chu and not actually following the script.
As for Chu, he finds his normally nimble rhythm only once, as the Four Horsemen play hot potato with the Magic Broomstick. Otherwise there’s a paucity of panache, with ugly, unconvincing action sequences, far-too-broad jokes and nonexistent visual verve.
Instead, NYSM 2 — which, when written that way, resembles a stock exchange symbol and thus its chief reason to exist — piles its plate high and sloppy, like a greedy glutton at a buffet that hasn’t seen fresh food in a few hours.
The movie reheats vengeance narratives, indulges egregious emotional retcons and gorges on bits borrowed from more fulfilling franchises. Glitzy casinos in Macau, clean-room heists, constant talk of “family.” Hmmm. There are also so many flimsy ideas of forgiveness and remorse that the film starts to feel like it’s begging you to not hold a grudge for being so bad … and to please, please consider Now You Three Me.
By trading on its source’s tight, fun ingenuity for craven, calculated gimcrackery, Now You See Me 2’s only distinctive trait is making all the fun disappear.