Maybe it’s unfair to saddle director Louis (Transporter) Leterrier’s new-ish “caper” drama Now You See Me with the “blockbuster” label, since it obviously doesn’t have the budget (or hype machine surrounding it) of an Iron Man 3 or a Man Of Steel, but its surprisingly healthy take at the box office in recent weeks has it hedging into “blockbuster” territory in terms of its gross ticket receipts, it’s got a “blockbuster”-caliber cast, and it definitely falls into the category of lightweight, fun, summer entertainment, so — let’s just roll with it.
And let’s not take that “lightweight, fun, summer entertainment” statement as a jab, either, please, because Now You See Me is a solid little piece of film-making that anyone associated with it can (and should) be damn proud of. It’s just not particularly “deep” in any thematic sense.
But so what? It’s been awhile since Hollywood served us up a good “caper”-style thriller — the last genuinely superb one that comes to mind is Roger Donaldson’s criminally-underappreciated The Bank Job, and that’s getting to be a good few years ago now — and even though this is a film that doesn’t aim for the same level of “ooh”s and “aah”s of the latest Marvel or DC celluloid comic-book adaptation, it’s got more genuine heroics than most of them, and is every bit as finely-calculated a crowd-pleaser as anything they’ve sent down the pipeline in recent years, as well.
The all-star cast definitely helps to elevate a script that at times belabors its points with admittedly necessary but occasionally clumsy “info-dump” scenes and features a smattering of dialogue that can best be described as “clunky,” and while none of the actors involved are exactly stretching their abilities into new and unexplored territory, there’s something to be said for knowing what the folks you hire are best at doing and then getting out of the way and letting them do it.
To that end, Jesse Eisenberg tackles his role as fast-talking, arrogant illusionist J. Daniel Atlas with aplomb; Woody Harrelson delivers a solid, workman-like piece of acting as mentalist Merritt McKinney; Isla Fisher gives us a nice turn as former-magician’s-assistant-turned-headliner Henley Reeves; Dave Franco projects cool confidence as safe-cracker/lock-picker/con artist extraordinaire Jack Wilder; Mark Ruffalo gives another “believable everyman” performance as Special Agent Dylan Rhodes, the man tasked with somehow getting some charges to stick on our intrepid foursome, who have come together and billed themselves as “The Four Horsemen,” after they apparently rob a bank in front of a Las Vegas show audience (or do they?); Michael Caine gives it his usual grade-A “go” as the group’s multi-millionaire benefactor/promoter/future victim; Morgan Freeman essentially plays himself in his guise as Through The Wormhole host, albeit with quantum physics being replaced with magic trick “debunking” as his gig; Melanie Laurent cuts a satisfying European-woman-of-mystery figure as Alma Dray, Ruffalo’s reluctant Interpol partner/potential love interest — heck, there are even notable minor performances here from Michael Kelly and Common as two of the cops who are down a few rungs on the investigative totem pole.
It’s not like the film doesn’t have any sort of statement to make about the general state of the world, either — to the contrary, “The Four Horsemen” take great pride in ripping off those who have ripped off society, and represent the kind of folk heroes the world could surely use in the wake of the mortgage crisis and the atrocious Wall Street bailout it gave birth to. Think of them as modern-day Robin Hoods with a flair for the dramatic and plenty of flat-out amazing tricks up their sleeves.
Still, the art of deception being the constant theme here, don’t be shocked if the reasons for our protagonists’ “crimes” turn out to be a lot more personal than they first appear to be (hey, I did say this movie wasn’t particularly “deep,” remember? Not even when it looks like it might be.) . I think I’ll just leave it at that, which might even be saying a little too much already.
Leterrier, as we’ve come to expect, keeps things moving at a fairly expert clip, throws in some nifty little visual tricks along the way, and most definitely delivers the goods in the film’s more action-heavy scenes, and while he handles the script’s quasi-trippy/metaphysical conclusion quite nicely in my view, I think a lot of folks will still find it a bridge too far, and frankly, for a movie that’s all about sleight of hand, you’ll still most likely see the “surprise character revelation” at the end coming from a mile off.
But ya know what? This is such an expertly-crafted piece of populist entertainment that I don’t think you’ll mind its admittedly-glaring weaknesses, simply because you’ll be too busy smiling from ear to ear. And that, perhaps, is its greatest trick of all.
There will surely be better films than Now You See Me released in 2013. Heck, there already have been. But I doubt there will be any that are more fun.