One question you never hear cinema-goers asking any more is “How did they do that?” For years now, so-called “movie magic” has all been done using computers, since Hollywood boffins and their pixel-wrangling skills have long since made the impossible more or less commonplace.
Which fails to shed light on why 2013’s Now You See Me was such a frankly unlikely movie hit. Seeing magicians in the flesh leaves us shaking our heads trying to work out how on earth they achieve their trickery, but a movie about a quartet of arena-filling illusionists? Since we all know it’s the special effects crew who’ll be pulling digital rabbits out of digital hats, how could we believe in the magicians’ powers of deception?
The trick in the original film was to distract us from lingering too long on such issues by delivering a fairly stellar cast in service of a twisty plot which rolled the caper-movie and whodunnit into one. There was Ocean’s Eleven-style intrigue, for instance, in figuring out just how the self-styled Four Horsemen – twitchy trickster Jesse Eisenberg, goofy mentalist Woody Harrelson, eager card-sharp Dave Franco and glamorous escapologist Isla Fisher – managed to rob a Parisian bank while performing on stage in Vegas.
At the same time, sceptical FBI agent Mark Ruffalo, veteran debunker Morgan Freeman and billionaire backer Michael Caine each helped the movie barrel along engagingly enough to keep attention away from the multiple plot holes.
In an era when the superhero treadmill seems to dominate our multiplexes, here was a movie that recalled the intricate frissons of, say, The Sting, and, hey, the central quartet championed wealth redistribution – always a bonus.
Second-time round, however, it’s all a bit of a struggle. The idea just isn’t as fresh as it once was, and since the Horsemen’s mystery employer was revealed in the first film’s climactic twist, where now for the Robin Hood illusionists?
First up, a quickly explained change of personnel, with Lizzy Caplan replacing the departed Fisher as the token female magician, before the gang tangle with an evil tech-magnate (played by a beardy Daniel Radcliffe, clearly trying far too hard) who’s plotting world domination with the weaselly assistance of Harrelson’s identical twin brother.
Meanwhile, by generating continuing roles for Ruffalo (still concealing his connections to the Horsemen from his FBI colleagues), Freeman (seeking revenge from his prison cell) and an especially weary-looking Caine as their disgruntled former impresario, you have a movie that’s chock-full of brilliant actors wading through turgid expository dialogue, and a whole lot less frolicsome action than one might have hoped for.
Moreover, when the Horsemen do eventually strut their stuff in an extended finale playing out amid a thronged London’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, their illusions prove so elaborately far-fetched that any residual intrigue or indeed credibility goes phfffft on the spot.
The magic is well and truly gone, and though the conceit of globe-trotting crime-fighting magicians is attractive enough to suggest the franchise still has potential, its future prospects will surely depend on avoiding the mistakes made by this overstuffed, lumbering and essentially not-desperately-exciting offering.
Now You See Me 2 is released in cinemas on Monday 4 July