There’s no middle ground on puzzle movies: They’re either cleverly assembled, as boxes within boxes that take the length of the film to unwrap, or sloppily stupid.
“Now You See Me” can’t quite claim to be the ideal crime drama – that would be “The Usual Suspects,” which justly won an Oscar for its script – but it’s only one level down. You might guess who’s behind the skulduggery, especially as you don’t have endless choices, but the last pieces of the puzzle don’t snap into place until the final scene.
We begin with four sleight-of-hand (and brain) artists: A gifted magician (Jesse Eisenberg), a mentalist who reads minds for blackmail (Woody Harrelson), a guy as adept at pickpocketing as card tricks (Dave Franco) and a Vegas-style illusionist who goes for splashy effects (Isla Fisher).
An unseen fifth person invites them to take part in a series of dazzling Robin Hood robberies that benefit their audiences. One year later, they’ve been dubbed The Four Horseman and have drawn the attention of a rich backer (Michael Caine), a professional debunker of magicians (Morgan Freeman) and two cops, an American (Mark Ruffalo) and a French Interpol agent (Mélanie Laurent), who want to tie them to crimes but don’t know how.
To say more about the plot is to spoil surprises that drop into place one after another, like those half-mile domino chains you see in Guinness record-book competitions. We get full explanations of the crimes, even if a few elements seem far-fetched. Only once does “See Me” commit the suspense-movie sin of relying on chance to set events in motion. For once, multiple writers didn’t mean confusion: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt adapted a story by Yakin and Ricourt.
Director Louis Leterrier cut his teeth on Jason Statham’s “Transporter” movies, so he can’t help putting in a long car case (the weakest narrative element) near the climax. Most of the time, though, he uses his fluid, ever-moving camera to dazzle and sometimes misdirect us in the way these magicians dazzle their crowds: It’s the visual equivalent of rapid patter.
He has also been smart enough to get actors who can provide character sketches quickly: Caine a greedy businessman, Harrelson a comic con artist with a wicked stare, Eisenberg a fast-talking egotist. (He merely channels his “Social Network” character, but that portrayal fits here.)
It’s hard to know whether to take seriously any mumbo-jumbo about The Eye, a society of magicians who’ve used their powers for good causes since ancient Egypt, but the writers don’t insist we believe. This element is a side dish thrown onto this cinematic tapas plate, one we can pick up or set aside, like the hint of a contentious romance between Ruffalo and Laurent.
Only one thing really matters: The deeds and motives of The Four Horseman, as the magicians dub themselves, and the shadowy figure behind them. While that tale unfolds, the film never falters.
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