Friday, June 10, 2016

Now You See Me 2: No rabbit in this hat

Now You See Me 2 (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.10.16

A good magician knows when to get off the stage, and how to leave an audience wanting more.

This film fails on both counts.

After being transported halfway around the world in a manner they can't comprehend, the
Four Horsemen — from left, Jack (Dave Franco), Lula (Lizzy Caplan), Atlas (Jesse
Eisenberg) and Merritt (Woody Harrelson) — are about to confront their captor.
That said, director Jon M. Chu is quite accomplished at another technique favored by magicians: repeatedly distracting us with inconsequential glitz, noise and plenty of flash, as a means of concealing the true ruse ... the fact that Ed Solomon’s confused, cluttered and ultimately contradictory screenplay doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Like so many other overblown, empty-calorie sequels, this one’s all sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. When we finally see what’s behind the curtain — and a bewildering, exposition-heavy epilog provides just such a scene — the letdown is palpable.

Sure, it’s fun to watch — sort of — but the joy is fleeting (although, at 129 minutes, not fleeting enough). But goodness; must frothy popcorn entertainment be so brain-dead?

Character development wasn’t a strong (card) suit in 2013’s Now You See Me, but at least some effort was made. Solomon wrote the script for that one as well, but he worked from a story by Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt. This time, Solomon also co-wrote the story, with Pete Chiarelli; both apparently decided that granting their stars anything approaching actual human behavior would have been superfluous.

Thus, the personalities of this sequel’s so-called “Four Horsemen” can be boiled down to single words: J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is arrogant; Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is smug; Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is bashful; and Lula (Lizzy Caplan) is reckless.

Attentive viewers may realize that Lula is a newcomer, replacing the first film’s Henley Reeves, played by Isla Fisher. No doubt the latter took one look at this new script, said words to the effect of “Are you kidding?” and bolted. More power to her.

For all its far-fetched frivolity, the first film offered a reasonably tight narrative that played fair with its audience: The twists were honorable, character motivations ultimately reasonable — mostly good, old-fashioned revenge — and the opulent legerdemain almost credible, in an over-produced, Las Vegas-y way.

This second time out, Solomon betrays the first film’s clever and tidy resolution by re-writing it: What we thought was true ... isn’t. While that might have been a great trick if he pulled it off, it becomes increasingly annoying as he clumsily fails. This sequel’s characters spend a lot of time telling each other — which is to say, telling US — what’s happening, and why. Said-bookism is boring.

Solomon obviously missed another important, counter-intuitive lesson from the actual world of magic: Despite what many of us insist, we really don’t like to be told how the miracle works. The “secret” is inevitably anticlimactic, and we get irritated by the (in hindsight) obvious deception.

Sad to say, Solomon generates a lot of irritation here.

To cases:

Roughly a year has passed, since the activities that took place in the first film. The three remaining Horsemen have remained underground and out of the public eye (Henley’s absence explained by some throwaway dialog). But they’re chafing: particularly Atlas, whose unchecked ego is being stoked by mysterious messages from the unseen “master manipulator” known only as The Eye.

FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) — revealed in the first film as the one who assembled the Horsemen, and orchestrated their high-profile exposés of powerful but despicable individuals and corporations — continues to lead a double life. By day, he works alongside FBI Deputy Director Natalie Austin (Sanaa Lathan), supposedly trying to find and catch the Horsemen; by night, he quietly assembles a profile on their next target.

Atlas, meanwhile, receives an unexpected visitor in the form of Lula: a “geek magician” who has built a reputation by shocking audiences. Despite ever more outrageous stunts, she remains best known for an early-career coup when she “pulled a hat out of a rabbit,” a cliché that now embarrasses her (which is odd; you’d think she’d be quite proud of such a signature accomplishment).

Lula has been selected by Dylan as the new Fourth Horseman. Now alongside the others — Atlas, master of opulent illusions and human psychology; Merritt, accomplished hypnotist; and Jack, smooth pickpocket and seasoned card manipulator — she joins the team just in time for their yearlong “retirement” to conclude.

Their new target is Hannes Pike (Zach Gregory), a wealthy tech entrepreneur about to unveil a next-gen smart phone guaranteed to be snapped up by a primed, ferociously loyal customer base. (Think Apple acolytes on steroids.) Ah, but what the public doesn’t know — what Dylan has found out — is that Pike’s new phone will be armed with a chip that’ll clandestinely strip-mine all user information, allowing him to sell a continuous stream of aggregate data to the highest bidder.

Ergo, Pike obviously needs to be stopped.

The Horsemen’s’ plan to upstage Pike’s glitzy product launch begins well enough, but suddenly goes off the rails. Forced to beat a hasty retreat, our heroes take advantage of their well-planned escape route ... and unexpectedly, impossibly, wind up in the kitchen of a restaurant. In Macau.

That’s a great moment of disconnect, both for the Horsemen, and for us. Too bad Solomon spoils it mere minutes later, by telling us what actually happened.

The “telling” is done by Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), an amoral tech genius hiding out in a Macau high-rise. The world believes him dead, which has allowed him to manipulate stocks and people invisibly, via proxies. All quite illegal, as Lula points out, but Walter couldn’t care less. More to the point, he’s the former partner of Pike, who, Walter insists, stole that crucial chip from him.

Walter wants it back. And he’ll expose and/or kill the Horsemen, and Dylan, if they don’t develop and execute a glitzy heist to accomplish that very task.

Up to this point, the goal and threat(s) are fairly easy to follow. Moving forward, though, the tricks, twists, duplicities, crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses and sidebar obfuscation become baffling, then tedious, and ultimately quite irritating. It’s impossible to care about anything or anybody, because we know it’s all smoke and mirrors.

More to the point — with the notable exception of Ruffalo’s Dylan — all of these characters are as thin as a playing card, so we don’t care a jot for them.

In fairness, the film offers a few engaging sequences. Visits to Iong’s Magic & Co. — an actual, real-world highlight in Macau (although amped-up quite a bit here) — are a lot of fun. These detours also introduce two new characters: co-proprietors Li (Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou) and the venerable Bu Bu (Tsai Chin).

The slickest bit of improvisational magic involves heisting the aforementioned chip, conveniently sized to fit on the back of a playing card. Chu and editor Stan Salfas superbly choreograph the acrobatic ballet that takes place as the Horsemen, amidst thorough body searches by guards, keep passing the card back and forth.

This bit works because it’s easy to understand; we delight in the execution, even as we forgive its complete absurdity. Would that the rest of Chu’s film had similar energy.

Less successful: Harrelson’s dual performances as Merritt and his even more irritating twin brother, Chase, who has a long-festering grudge against his sibling, and has allied with Walter. One smug Woody Harrelson performance is bad enough; two is beyond endurance.

A quick look at the cast list also promises return appearances by Michael Caine, as scheming gazillionaire Arthur Tressler; and Morgan Freeman, as magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley, and avowed enemy of the Horsemen. Their involvement won’t be discussed, lest I be accused of spoilers ... but chances are, you won’t find them satisfying.

Ultimately, Now You See Me 2 falls victim to the sophomore curse that afflicts so many sequels mandated more by commerce than narrative necessity. Chu, Solomon & Co. succumb to the “bigger is better” mentality, emphasizing the vacuous spectacle while ignoring the character elements (minor though they may have been) that gave the first film some heart. We see this time and again, the transition from Home Alone to Home Alone 2 being a particularly notorious example.

Clearly, Hollywood never learns.

I note that Chu and Solomon already are attached to Now You See Me 3. I’ll try to contain my excitement.

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