Despite some entertaining moments, Now You See Me 2 is largely an exercise of style over substance when it's all said and done.
Picking up one year after its predecessor, Now You See Me 2 sees various members of the magician group The Four Horsemen - J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) - hiding in the shadows as they await instructions from The Eye. Atlas has become irritated by how slow things are progressing, as well as the perpetual crypticness of the messages sent from the team's leader Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). After a long time of waiting, Dylan reassembles the Horsemen for a new daring assignment.
Bringing in newcomer Lula (Lizzy Caplan) to fill the void left by the departed Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Dylan tasks the magicians with hijacking the launch of a piece of tech that threatens to strip users of their right to privacy, exposing their unethical business practices on a large stage. But things don't go as planned, and the Horsemen are compromised when their greatest secrets are revealed at the event. In their escape, the teams is kidnapped by tech prodigy Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), who forces the Horseman to pull off their toughest stunt yet in exchange for their freedom.
Now You See Me 2 sees G.I. Joe Retaliation director Jon M. Chu step in for Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk), and Chu is able to incorporate his action sensibilities very nicely to give the film a flashy visual flair and brisk pace that keeps things moving along. But despite some entertaining moments, Now You See Me 2 is largely an exercise of style over substance that doesn't leave much of a lasting impression when it's all said and done.
As was the case in the first film, Ruffalo is one of the standout members of the star-studded ensemble. Free of having to preserve his character's twist from the original, Ruffalo is able to give a more well-rounded performance that allows him to have some fun with the magical elements (in particular, an action sequence through the streets of Macau). His Dylan is also arguably the only one in Ed Solomon's script that receives a complete arc, as Rhodes is set up as the film's true protagonist. Ruffalo gets to convey different sides of Dylan, responsible for Now You See Me 2's more emotional beats. He spends most of his screen time playing off of Morgan Freeman's Thaddeus Bradley, and the two actors use their talents to give the film an interesting dynamic that pays off in the end. Their relationship is the true beating heart of Now You See Me 2.
Unfortunately, most of Ruffalo's co-stars are underserved by the screenplay. Harrelson has a very amusing turn as Merritt and his twin brother Chase, crafting a fun sibling rivalry that covers both sides of the primary conflict. However, his fellow Horseman aren't as lucky and are more plot devices than fully rendered characters. Eisenberg, Franco, and Caplan are fine in their roles, there just isn't much for them to do outside of performing their illusions. There is a delight in watching them go through their acts and charm audiences, but since Atlas, Wilder, and Lulu aren't all that fleshed out, any attempts at presenting something deeper (see: a budding romance between Jack and Lulu) fall flat. The magic is meant to be the main attraction, but it would be nice if the magicians were interesting too. The same can be said for the supporting cast; Radcliffe's villainous Walter is sketched thinly and Michael Caine comes in for what amounts to a menacing, glorified cameo. Both have their moments, but aren't as strong as they could have been.
Now You See Me 2 mixes up the formula from the first film a bit. Instead of magic shows, the set pieces are constructed in the heist film mold (a la Fast Five), blending multiple genres so that the sequel doesn't feel like just a retread of what's come before. As stated before, Chu has a good handle on this material, and the antics of the Horsemen deliver some of the film's more memorable moments. The action is slickly constructed and Chu makes sure every Horseman gets a chance to incorporate their abilities. The various sequences supply fair amounts of comedy and tension - particularly the break-in at the Macau Science Center. This approach is welcomed and gives Now You See Me 2 its own unique style.
That said, the main narrative comes across as borderline convoluted, as the sequel attempts to outdo the twists and turns of the original. Ironically, the "surprises" lose their value as the film proceeds, meaning that by the grand finale, things fall into the realm of predictability and mundane. Solomon may have benefitted from writing a more straightforward plot that doesn't have an overeliance on misdirection. In an age of hollow tentpoles, keeping the audience guessing can be refreshing, but Now You See Me 2 almost conditions the viewer to expect the opposite, sapping the impact of the big reveals. Some of them are clever, but the plethora of mysteries (and the screenplay's tendency to explain every single one) is tiresome and strips the movie of its magic.
In the end, Now You See Me 2 operates as breezy, yet shallow entertainment that will most likely disappoint anyone expecting something a little more than face level enjoyment. The cast are all fun to watch, but the script turns most of them into caricatures that are difficult to attach to. Fans of 2013's Now You See Me should be able to get a kick out of this one as well, but the uninitiated can probably wait until home media to check out the sequel.
Now You See Me 2 is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 129 minutes and is rated PG-13 for language, some violence, and sexual content.
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