Four magicians, each with a very different shtick, (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher ("Wedding Crashers", "The Lookout") and Dave Franco ("Warm Bodies", "21 Jump Street") receive Tarot cards directing them to a run-down apartment in Brooklyn. After a few moments of general confusion (“oh, you’re here as well?”) they uncover the plans for an elaborate magic illusion. Fast forward and the group is now headlining in Vegas as The Four Horseman. Their sponsor, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) watches with disinterest from the audience. Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and his assistant also sit quietly in the audience, filming the entire show; Thaddeus has made a career of debunking the claims and magic of popular acts. The group calls a random audience member to the stage and manages to transport him, to the interior of his bank’s vault, in Paris, where he grabs millions of euros just before they begin to rain down on the audience in Vegas. Enter reluctant FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) who is called in to investigate. But the Four Horsemen are quickly released and move on to their next venue, New Orleans and their next illusion.
Thus begins “Now You See Me”, a very fast-paced, well-made caper film directed by Louis Letterier (“The Transporter”, “Taken”) and written by Ed Solomon and Boaz Yakim. “See Me” is a fun, easy to watch film perfect for the summer popcorn crowd. The film is not without problems; there are a few too many third act plot twists which aren’t established enough to connect to the rest of the story. While this does detract from the overall effort, the rest of the film is good enough to help you overlook this.
“See Me” is also a very slick film, which is both good and bad. As the narrative barrels along, it keeps us interested, but it doesn’t provide a lot of time for character development. As each of the characters is introduced, we get a brief moment showing us a little of their lives, but that is pretty much it. J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg) is in Vegas captivating a crowd of pretty young women; he is putting the moves on one of the girls in his swanky bachelor pad when he realizes he has the Tarot card. Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) is doing hypnosis tricks at Café du Monde in New Orleans when he gets his card. Henley Reeves (Fisher) is performing an elaborate escape act, complete with a straitjacket and piranhas, in a Los Angeles club. Jack Wilder (Franco) is doing cheap tricks for a group of tourists on a New York ferry, trying to scam them out of a tenner. When they initially meet at the address in Brooklyn, we learn some know each other, some have heard of others, but that is it. When they uncover the secret plans, they are captivated and the narrative shifts forward a year and we rejoin them as the Four Horsemen.
Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds”) enters the picture after the illusion involving the French bank and tags along with Dylan. But they always seem to be one step behind the clever magicians.
Letterier, the director of “Clash of the Titans (2010)”, “The Incredible Hulk (2008)” and “The Transporter” films is a director who seems intent on creating summer popcorn films, films filled with fast-paced action, lots of special effects and little or no character development. “The Transporter” films were a blast, but since then Letterier has had difficulty finding the right balance. In “Now You See Me”, the director uses great CGI to almost convince us the magicians are performing real illusions. Unfortunately, because the CGI is so good, it isn’t believable. And the late-in-the-narrative explanation of how the magic was possible just doesn’t cut it either.
In "See Me", Letterier seems to have found the right vehicle for his limited storytelling skills. I only wish he had been able to create a little bit of character development, fleshing out the performances to make them more interesting. In a way, because the production values are so high, the lack of character development is more noticeable and makes the film seem unbalanced and the experience seem hollow. Learning something, anything about them would forge a stronger connection with the viewer and make us care about them just a little more. Note to all filmmakers; even the smallest amount of character development will improve your film immensely.
Generally, if we don’t learn specifically about the characters, their actions and the plot will lead us to learn something about them. But the four magicians are following a detailed set of instructions and seem clueless as to their purpose or the final outcome. So, that doesn't work either.
Rhodes (Ruffalo) is reluctantly paired with Alma. As they chase the magicians, we see a relationship building between them, but this is the only one in the entire film. And they aren't the central characters – I'm not sure anyone could be considered the star, there are too many people running around, playing a part - so it seems odd to be given more information about these characters than others.
My biggest problem with “See Me” is there are too many third-act plot twists. The key to a good plot twist is there needs to be a subtle hint or connection to something we have witnessed earlier. The best plot twists involve something you have seen, but no longer remember. When the twist happens, a light goes off in your head. “Oh, yeah.” In “See Me”, there just aren’t connections to the many, many twists. If they are there, they are too subtle. Because these moments seem to simply materialize out of thin air, the movie’s credibility wanes and wobbles and quickly devolves into a bad episode of “Murder She Wrote”.
I know the problems don't really seem small or insignificant, but when weighed against the overall effect of the entire film, they seem to be less important. Maybe Letterier has created an illusion of his own?
“Now You See Me” is a fun bit of fantasy, perfect to help you make a few hours disappear.
Get ready for a sequel.