Now You See Me is an old-fashioned caper movie with a 21st-century sheen: Ocean’s Eleven meets Derren Brown. A raggle-taggle band of magicians — mentalist Woody Harrelson, escapologist Isla Fisher, card sharp Jesse Eisenberg and street hustler Dave Franco – are recruited one by one by a mysterious hooded figure who uses their skills in elaborate Robin Hood stunts to redistribute wealth. Morgan Freeman plays the magic-buster who is there to explain their tricks to the cops (Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent), and thereby also to the viewer; Michael Caine also lends star power in an underwritten part.
The film has become a surprise hit in the US, grossing over $100 million in a summer full of blockbusters, and industry pundits have put that down to good word-of-mouth and marketing centred on much-loved Morgan Freeman. That may be true, but I have another explanation, a fiendish and cunning explanation, one that all along has been hiding in plain view.
Look again at the poster: the film’s seven stars gaze up at you hypnotically, like Reservoir Dogs in 3D, over the vast heading “Now You See Me”. Having communed with my inner Derren Brown, I can exclusively reveal that it is in reality one giant subliminal command. As in, “You: See Me. Now!”
You might as well just go with it. The film is directed with enormous energy by Louis Leterrier of Transporter and Hulk fame, and spectacularly well edited by his regular collaborator Vincent Tabaillon (jointly credited with veteran Robert Leighton). One might wish more effort had been put into making the characters as likeable or the love story as convincing as the tricks, but the plot twists cleverly, keeping one step ahead of the viewer right up to the final frame.
That said, the key to magic, as the protagonists keep telling us, is misdirection, and that applies just as well to Now You See Me. It’s a film of smoke and mirrors, blinding the viewer to the fact that, at heart, it’s utter tosh. As with machines, the most durable criminal plans have the fewest moving parts; the magicians’ ridiculously complex schemes could easily have gone awry at any juncture.
And illusion on film simply doesn’t thrill the way it does live. When I was a kid, I half-believed in vampire visitations and fairy-tale wishes, and was so convinced that my parents were shape-changing aliens that I rattled the doorknob before entering to give them time to adopt human form. No? Just me, then?
Anyway, the David Blaines and Derren Browns can reconnect you to that childish sense of prickling wonder, where you almost start believing, for a split second, telepathy, or levitation, or the power to predict the future. On film you just believe in the power of CGI to do anything and that Woody Harrelson has read a script rather than minds.
Film itself has been called “magic at 24 frames per second”. To me, it’s enough to see other human beings living intensely on screen, in places I could never visit, and lose myself so completely inside them that I emerge at the end credits blinking, surprised to find myself sitting in a cinema.
This is not the kind of magic Now You See Me performs. But if you want nothing more than a highly entertaining way to spend an evening, then… alakazam!
Now You See Me opens on July 3