NOW YOU SEE ME 2 Review

2014's Now You See Me was an unexpected hit that made $351 million worldwide on a budget of $75 million and so here we are, two years later, with what is ultimately an unnecessary sequel. There is no need for this movie to exist, there was no reason for these characters to have another similar adventure to that of the one they experienced in the first film and yet, because the dollars dictate it, The Four Horsemen have returned to give us another trip through the secret world of magicians and to point out just how detached from reality they've become if they think they can trick us into believing magicians would ever garner the kind of media attention they do here. I digress, but I can't help but to be a little perturbed by the fact there is a sequel to a film that was a perfectly smart and entertaining one off story that will now forever be tarnished by the existence of this unnecessary successor. In short, NYSM2 is a whole lot of nonsense that doesn't necessarily go anywhere meaningful or comment on anything relevant, but in its defense is something of a crowd-pleaser. It is easy to see the broad appeal of what is at play here as all of the actors are engaging and clearly audiences enjoyed the first one enough to presumably show up and give what is essentially more of the same their money. NYSM2 is a sequel in the tradition of those retreaded sequels that used to be the norm, before the whole expanded universe thing came along, and thus could serve as an example under the definition of guilty pleasure. There is nothing particularly fresh this movie intends to do with the premise and character traits that were defined in the first film, but more NYSM2 desires to expand upon story aspects of the original to the point they no longer make as much sense or hold as much weight as they once did when this was a contained story. There might be new characters played by Daniel Radcliffe and Lizzy Caplan, but they aren't really new-they're just excuses to tread the same water the first film did with updated facades meant to trick the audience into thinking this sequel has something new and exciting to offer. Don't be fooled. There isn't much to see here. Though the film is more consistently funny than I expected and the rapport between the actors even smoother than before the final product still feels more like a magician blowing hot air at their audience for two hours rather than actually daring to dazzle us.

From left: Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, and Jesse Eisenberg in Now You See Me 2.
Set one year after outwitting the FBI (Sanaa Lathan replacing Mélanie Laurent this time around) and winning the public's adulation with their Robin Hood-style magic spectacles, The Four Horsemen are awaiting their chance to resurface and begin performing together again. Under the watchful eye of still operating FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) the Horsemen are awaiting word from the elite magic society known as "The Eye" with Rhodes keeping the Horsemen in check. As is expected, most are becoming restless in this scenario. This is especially true of Jesse Eisenberg's Daniel Atlas as he has sought out The Eye himself for individual instruction as to when he might be able to step back into the limelight. Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is still believed to be dead by the public and Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) has spent his reclusive year trying to learn how to throw a card proficiently from the master himself, Mr. Wilder. There is really no valid reason given as to why Isla Fisher's character is no longer present other than the fact we know she wasn't able to return for the sequel, but in her place they've cast the wonderful Caplan as a somewhat novice magician known as Lula whom Rhodes and The Eye see potential in. When the time comes for a comeback performance that is put into motion with the hopes of exposing an unethical tech magnate named Owen Case (Ben Lamb) things go strangely awry for the Horsemen and they are whisked off to Macau, China where we are introduced to Radcliffe's Walter Mabry. Mabry is a tech prodigy who requires the assistance of the Horsemen to retrieve what he believes is rightfully his AKA what Case was going to use to further his own brand and riches. Essentially, Mabry wishes for the Horsemen to pull off something of an impossible heist and threatens to kill them if they don't agree. As they aren't left with much of a choice the set of magicians begin to plan how they might accomplish such a task, but not before former enemies Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) are conveniently brought back into the picture to add even more nonsense to this already convoluted plot.

To be more specific, the film actually opens with a flashback to 1984 in order to shine a fresh perspective on the events that shaped the life of Rhodes which we saw come to a fruition of sorts in the first film. It is through this set-up that we come to wonder how this retelling of Rhodes' origin will once again play into the overall narrative of the second film after the first seemed to so neatly wrap-up those vendettas. Early on it looks as if the backbone of NYSM2 will become this battle of the brains between the two seasoned magicians in Rhodes and Bradley, but the film seems to abandon this idea almost as soon as it sets it up by giving Freeman a more perfunctory role that shifts the focus back to the forced and senseless relationship created between Mabry and the Horseman. It is with this new, driving plot device involving Mabry and his plan to control the grid by existing outside the grid that it seems screenwriter Ed Solomon might tackle the hot topic of privacy and surveillance in an age where everyone loves to share, but no-this is not the case. Any talk of the invasion of privacy or the state of how much freedom we actually receive these days is all in the service of boilerplate language that Mabry and other antagonists spout in order to sound impressive. Like much of the movie itself, the words are empty and the threats don't mean anything resulting in a plot and story where we as an audience find it difficult to root for anyone, especially the magicians we came to see. Instead, the Horseman are forced to lay low for far too much of the running time and then once they're allowed to utilize their skills we have to come to terms with the reality that despite what they're doing is cool it feels completely unjustified in the context of the story. Worst of all is that all of this talk and break-neck pacing implemented by new director John M. Chu (replacing, but still replicating previous director Louis Leterrier) culminates in a final trick that isn't nearly as impressive or poignant as the previous films given we haven't developed with these characters further and that there is no formidable threat for this trick to overcome or defeat. Mabry is a pawn and because Freeman and Caine more or less appear in the capacity of cameos the trick The Four Horseman concoct defies even the most extravagant of imaginations for a foe who isn't worthy.

Jack (Franco), Daniel (Eisenberg), and Lula (Caplan) somewhat meet their match in Allen Scott-Frank (Henry Lloyd-Hughes).  
With as much in mind there are a few redeeming qualities this otherwise gratuitous sequel delivers to its faithful followers. First and foremost is the fact that for some reason Solomon thought it wise to give Woody Harrelson's character a twin brother. While this is ultimately pretty random and makes little sense in terms of Harrelson's McKinney not bothering to mention this in the first film it does allow for Harrelson to create a completely new character and basically ham it up twice as much. Harrelson has always been an actor who relishes in the absurd and that here he is afforded the opportunity to virtually create his own template for how to accomplish some especially wacky antics almost makes the fact this movie exists forgivable. Speaking to the performances, it is the natural chemistry between this group that allows for the over two hour runtime of the film to go down somewhat smoothly. I could watch Harrelson and Eisenberg go back and forth at one another all day and while Fisher's presence was certainly a welcome dose of bubbly charm in an otherwise male-dominated cast Caplan holds her own against those same heavy hitters here, but in a more biting tone as her Lula is more than ready to go toe to toe with each of the pre-established Horseman. In her introductory scenes she is especially charming to the point she takes the wind out from under everyone's sails catching each of them off guard in such a fashion I was ready to buckle in and enjoy the ride. But beyond this strong rapport between the cast members and getting over the disappointment that Radcliffe has little to no interest in performing magic again here NYSM2 more or less serves as one of those movies that says a lot of words and throws a whole lot of imagery and sounds at its audience without respecting that audience enough to bring all of that incoherent noise together. There are scenes of Ruffalo destroying hired guns in a street fight in downtown Macau as if he were Jason Bourne: The Bourne Magician as well as Freeman narrating the opening and closing sequences of the film with gibberish about his "eye for an eye" motto, but it's hard to see how this dialogue even applies to the differing perspectives we open and close on. To sum things up, the biggest trick NYSM2 attempts is to look as if it has it all together when in reality all it does is continuously trip over itself by trying to repeat what made the original so novel.