“Now You See Me,” as the title may imply, deals with magicians and, inevitably, disappearing acts. Though his name is never invoked, pioneer French filmmaker/magician Georges Melies is indirectly honored in this, the mass medium to which he helped give birth. Specifically, Melies used the camera to create the illusion that people disappeared, a trick which any kid with an iPhone can now duplicate. Fellow Frenchman and director Louis Leterrier — best known for his “Transporter” flicks — has considerably more high tech wizardry at his disposal, and he uses it liberally in the service of cinematic illusion. The resulting film is visually impressive entertainment, one that will amuse if not exactly edify.
Leterrier also has a couple of big names, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, in minor roles. But four younger actors carry the weight in this heist flick, playing the “Four Horsemen” who combine their individual talents to create a spectacular Vegas show. For their grand finale they promise the audience that they will rob a bank onstage. More impressive still, the bank apparently chosen at random is in Paris. When they carry it off, with three million in euros cascading down on the crowd, the quartet have hit the big time.
Their complementary talents make the illusion work. Mentalist Merritt (Woody Harrelson), illusionist Danny (Jesse Eisenberg), escape artist Henley (Isla Fisher), and pickpocket/lock picker Jack (Dave Franco) take a year to combine their acts into a Big Act. What motivates them is one of the several Big Reveals at the end, which is a mite lamer than the preceding action and telegraphed a bit too clearly.
On the way, though, the screenplay features some pretty snappy dialogue, not normally a staple of LeTerrier’s action movies. There’s also a subplot involving two law officers who start out as antagonists but end up in love — another film cliché — as they attempt to bring the magician thieves to justice. FBI agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol officer Alma (Melanie Laurent) share their frustration, heightened by the taunting of magic show debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman). Hired by multimillionaire Arthur Tressler (Caine) to get back the large piece of his fortune which he loses in the second Big Show, Bradley first shows the cops how the first one worked, taking some of the fun out of the illusion while sparking our admiration for the artistry.
Leterrier and his crew are at their best when they employ the power of film to create the illusion of reality, considerably aided by several visual effects companies like Industrial Light and Magic. I especially liked the use of light to distract us from the various tricks, magic and otherwise, going on. As the first lines of the movie warn us, “The closer you look, the less you see.” We’re also told repeatedly to look at the big picture, but when we finally get to see it, there’s a bit of a letdown.
As long as “Now You See Me” stays on the shiny surface, though, it’s a pleasant diversion, a clever enough summer movie with only one car chase (!) and no blood and gore. Rated “PG-13” for “language, some action, and sexual content,” the movie presents no threat to the morals of teens, though it may lure the unwary to start doing card tricks. Parents: be advised.