The success of a heist movie is predicated on one notion: our longing to be the smartest person in the room. The thrill of a perfectly executed robbery can outshine any 3D digital effect, Michael Bay explosion, or gratuitous underwear shot (I’m looking at you, 2013’s Star Trek into Darkness). More than that, the genre provides a context wherein our heroes can achieve the seemingly impossible. The fact that they’re breaking the law only fuels the fantasy, much like an illusionist’s dubious claims of magic ignites our desire to suspend disbelief.
The latter analogy lies at the heart of Now You See Me, which tells of a group of up-and-coming stage magicians pulling increasingly elaborate heists to even the scales of our broken financial system. These Four Horsemen, whose minimalist insignia I adore, consist of front man J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), smarmy mentalist Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson), and young sleight-of-hand expert Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). I love their rapid-fire repartee, which reminds us that the one thing more entertaining than listening to the smartest person in the room is watching several worthy minds compete for the title.
We also get to spend time with some of the Horsemen’s antagonists, including their greedy sponsor Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), a professional magic debunker named Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), and two bumbling law enforcement officers played by Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent. If we’re to interpret the plot of Now You See Me as one elaborate magic performance, the latter two would serve as the gullible studio audience, oohing and aahing exactly on cue so that we start to wonder whether they’re in on the act. Either way, I could’ve done without their forced romance, which plays a bit like a dysfunctional couple in the front row interrupting the show with a clearly rehearsed marriage proposal.
The main attraction, you see, pertains to our heroes’ phenomenally public heists. Unlike Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Man on a Ledge (2012), and other entries in the genre, Now You See Me presents each theft from the mark’s point of view, evoking the playful wonder of a well rehearsed prestidigitation act. Then the film doubles back as Bradley pieces together the mechanics of every scheme, pulling the curtain wide open while keeping us one step behind the Horsemen at every turn.
This is not to say the set pieces turn out any less impressive for it. I like the way the narrative invites us to guess how the Horsemen pull off each of their robberies. Admittedly, some tricks stretch plausibility to its breaking point, but I still managed to figure out how our heroes emptied out a Parisian bank while hosting a live performance in Las Vegas. The final heist on the streets of New York, on the other hand, kept me guessing to the end, despite director Louis Leterrier playing fair and foreshadowing every clue I could have needed.
It’s rare that I get to praise Leterrier for his subtlety. Having cut his teeth with the likes of The Transporter (2002) and Clash of the Titans (2008), the French director has earned a reputation for high-rent schlock more than crafty cinematic puzzles. Even in Now You See Me, which openly celebrates over-the-top spectacle, his approach strikes me as a tad too glossy, relying on digital glow-in-the-dark tarot cards when a simple pan to a tree could’ve done the trick. In fact, I’d argue the latter shot would have played a lot better because trees don’t require suspension of disbelief.
The same can be said of the Four Horsemen, whom the movie keeps around until it runs out of story for them, plugging the holes with esoteric nonsense about the “Order of the Eye”. I’m not suggesting their motivation shouldn’t be linked to a leap of faith, like any magical endeavour, but it seems to me Now You See Me could have spared itself a few groans among audience members if Leterrier had cut to the credits just a few minutes earlier, keeping our heroes’ reaping an enigma to be locked away by the side of the Seine. After all, a true magician never reveals his secrets.