‘Now You See Me 2’
Jon M. Chu
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Lizzy Caplan
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes


“Now You See Me 2” is not as mouth-frothingly, tinfoil hat-wearingly inane as the first, but is that a good thing? The super-surprise 2013 magical magicians hit played like “Drunk History” but for movies. In it, a laughably overqualified cast looked powerfully confused as they ran through a nonsensical plot — some balderdash made even sillier because it kept stopping to explain what happened and succeeded only in making even less sense. Was that the charm? That it freed the brain from even a baseline of logic, all while pretending to be about that most rigorous of sciences: the sleight of hand, meant to fool rubes?


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It’s not clear if even the studio heads knew why the first made cash money, but the follow-up is less barking mad, though still plenty stupid. A sequel is the chance to erect a world, to deepen a mythology and the characters within it. But how do you build when the foundation is cracked and overrun with weeds? And so our conjurers and con artists who may or may not have actual supernatural powers are back — well, some of them are. In the grand tradition of cash-in sequels, one member (Isla Fischer) is unceremoniously replaced with another (Lizzy Caplan), with only a sad throwaway line to explain her absence. Why gods like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine returned is a deeper mystery.


Otherwise it’s back to business, whatever that is. Having successfully become world famous Robin Hood-style illusionists who can teleport things and disappear on magical carousels, the team — Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Jesse Eisenberg, in descending order of commitment — find themselves the target of a billionaire rich kid (Daniel Radcliffe). He wants to destroy them, but not before he blackmails them into using their gifts for elaborate “Mission: Impossible”-style schemes — which look far, far more expensive than any goods they’re stealing — to make off with a MacGuffin that will allow him to rule the world or something. At least you can describe the plot in a fairly simple sentence. With this franchise that’s a major step-up.

At heart, dumb blockbusters are magic, too, seducing us into turning off our brains and succumbing to the ride. But even those who don’t obsess over logic holes — a favorite pastime of certain prickly moviegoers — can get tripped up by the “Now You See Me”s. Our heroes’ powers are pure wishy-washy: Sometimes they’re mere illusions; sometimes they appear to have actual magic powers, a la “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.” The “Now, here’s how we did it!” explanations don’t help. At one point Eisenberg’s character stops a torrent of rain mid-drop, then sends it back into the sky. Amazing! Then he just says the secret was strobe lights. Or, I dunno, CGI?

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Still, on top of being less howlingly, mind-numbingly imbecilic, “Now You See Me 2” has a surer hand. The cast certainly seems less at sea. Poor Mark Ruffalo, as a fed who’s a stealth conjurer, once looked like he was annoyed with his agent for embroiling him in this hot mess; this time he finds a Zen place and goes with the flow. Ditto Harrelson, who simply seems amused to be in another wacky series, while Caplan and Radcliffe inject intentional humor into a film that’s usually funny in a different way.

Director Jon M. Chu, taking over for Louis Letterier — who was busy rogering Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong with elephant peens in the underrated “The Brothers Grimsby” — creates at least one genuine showstopper: some ridiculous but elegant business involving a playing card and touchy security guards. In this scene, you can sit back and forget that what you’re watching is pure poppycock. Then it reminds you, again and again, and the spell is broken.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge