June 5 2013 12:00 AM

'Now You See Me' gets original with bank-robbing magicians


The 2006 dueling magician movie “The Prestige” laid out the three aspects of a magic trick: The pledge (introduction of a seemingly normal object), the turn (making something extraordinary happen to that object) and the prestige, which is described thus: 

“Now you’re looking for the secret ... but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But … making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.” 

Bringing up the rear of a thematic sequence of recent movies about magicians, ranging from the indie (“Desperate Acts of Magic,” “Magic Camp”) to the wide-release (“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” “Oz the Great and Powerful”), “Now You See Me” is a caper film about a group of bank-robbing magicians that bears the DNA of both “The Prestige” and “The Usual Suspects.” Screenwriters Ed Solomon (“Men in Black,” the “Bill and Ted” movies) and Boaz Yakin openly cop to hurling flash paper at your face and making rabbits disappear to distract you from the humdrum business of concocting a heist plot set squarely in the world of Davids Blaine and Copperfield — but it’s a self-referential twist on the genre that only works in fits and starts. 

“Now You See Me” is set up like the similarly twisty “The Usual Suspects,” in which a team of all-stars is assembled by a mysterious mastermind to pull off a series of crimes. The pledge: Meet J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), a cocky street magician who threatens to implode with smugness; Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a powerful mentalist who’s reduced to using his Jedi-like mind tricks to blackmail folks on the street with their dirty secrets; Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Atlas’ former assistant who’s graduated to sex-soaked flamboyant nightclub gigs in Los Angeles; and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a master New York pickpocket who’s been vetted for his street smarts and fighting skills. They’re brought together as the Four Horsemen, given a trick that maximizes each of their skills and perform it live on a Vegas stage — robbing a Parisian bank in real time. 

The turn: G-man Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who’s so grizzled he (choke) doesn’t believe in magic, is assigned to the case and partnered with a hot French Interpol agent. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Atlas tells Rhodes, after the two meet for the first time, that the Horsemen will always be seven steps ahead of the law, which, in turn, becomes the central problem with the film: movie-making itself is an illusion, so you never know how far back to dial your B.S. meter once the plot really gets cooking. Was that explosion real? Was that battle of wits staged? How seriously should I take that death? 

The plot has a built-in safety valve that keeps you from really tumbling down the rabbit hole. For every, “How´d they do that?" you´d normally ask yourself at a real magic (ha, now there’s a paradox) show, here your answer is: clever editing. Or CGI. Or, you know, the fact that it´s a movie.   

The performances are solid all the way around, particularly from the hypnotic Harrelson, but once Ruffalo enters, the film stays away far too long from the Horsemen. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman turn in sly supporting performances, but again, you never know what to do with them. As a viewer who’s just been told not to believe what you see, it’s difficult to connect with any of the characters because you don’t know who’s lying to you. 

Which is why the prestige, when it’s finally revealed, loses some of its inherent power. The thing about magic is you kind of have to believe in it for a trick to have any effect. Some people have just as much fun watching, picking a trick apart, trying to figure out how it worked. 

But sometimes it’s best just to sit back and enjoy the show, and in that capacity, “Now You See Me” is worth the ride.