NOW YOU SEE ME 2

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NOW YOU SEE ME 2  * *

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Radcliffe. Screenplay by Ed Solomon. Directed by Jon M. Chu.

The fact that there’s a sequel to Now You See Me strikes me as only slightly less absurd than the fact that it isn’t called Now You Don’t. It’s not that I have any particularly strong feelings about the original 2013 time-killer; it’s that I find it difficult to imagine how anyone could.

Despite grossing over a hundred million dollars, Now You See Me still feels like the kind of non-event movie most people probably saw on a plane. (I myself was reviewing films for three separate publications that summer yet only watched it because I was early for another screening and there weren’t any bars around.) A disposable entertainment with an overqualified cast, I vaguely recall that was shiny and moved along quickly enough to keep not making any fucking sense whatsoever from being too much of a concern.

In theory, Now You See Me 2 is reminiscent of eighties sequels like Another Stakeout or Short Circuit 2, when a fluke hit gets trotted out for a second lap even though everybody’s already forgotten the first. In practice, screenwriter Ed Solomon carries on as if he’s scripting the Godfather II of wiseacre Vegas magician movies, with so many flashbacks to the characters’ childhoods, family fake-outs, surprise siblings and shocking revelations that Now You See Me 2 would probably be near-impossible to follow even if you’d just watched the first picture again earlier in the afternoon. I had not.

We pick up a year or two after where I guess we left off, with those crafty criminal magicians known as The Horsemen on the lam and under the protection of some sort of abracadabra Illuminati called The Eye. (The Horsemen, The Eye – a lot of the names here feel like placeholders nobody got around to filling in later.) Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Dave Franco and Woody Harrelson are all back, but Isla Fisher and director Louis Leterrier were apparently too busy making anal wind chimes with The Brothers Grimsby. Fisher’s been replaced by Lizzy Caplan (a rushed line of dialogue explains why she’s here instead but otherwise it seems like someone just did a ‘Replace All’ on the screenplay) and Jon M. Chu steps behind the camera with anonymous efficiency.

This time around our heroes have to track down a high-tech MacGuffin that hacks something or other, the whole gang ending up in Macau with Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou because Chinese box office is what’s driving the blockbuster economy right now. Daniel Radcliffe has a semi-amusing heel turn as The Horsemen’s dastardly new nemesis, then Michael Caine shows up about halfway through to play the villain again in what seems intended to be a surprise even though he’s on the poster. Most of the fun here is had by Harrelson, pulling double duty and portraying his character’s evil twin brother as a deranged send-up of real-life bongo buddy Matthew McConaughey.

As in the first film, what passes for “magic” here is mostly cheating — elaborate computer-generated effects followed by The Horsemen rushing through explanations that don’t hold water. (At one point Eisenberg freezes raindrops in mid-air and sends them hurtling back upward into the sky, later claiming he pulled it off with sprinklers and strobe lights. Right.) Sometimes The Horsemen are more famous than The Beatles, cheered on by screaming throngs of passersby. Other times they’re anonymous enough to stroll into heavily secured installations unrecognized. Harrelson’s powers of hypnosis could qualify him for the X-Men, except when the screenplay says they don’t work.

It’s all harmless enough, I guess. Also pointless and more than a little bit strained. The cutaways to adoring audiences applauding The Horsemen lend an air of forced conviviality; an affection that the movie hasn’t earned. Mark Ruffalo struggles manfully with a character burdened by so many stupid plot twists he ceased to make sense an entire movie ago. (He’s bad, but still better than he was in Spotlight.) Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman faces similar motivational woes by spending most of his scenes wearily eyeing the exit.

I’m told a third installment is already in the works, because in franchise-addicted Hollywood every story must become a saga. Even one as inconsequential as this.

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