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Debopriyaa Dutta

10 Years Ago, Morgan Freeman Made the Most Absurd Heist Thriller of the Century

“What is magic? Focused deception. But deception meant to entertain,” says Jesse Eisenberg’s J. Daniel Atlas before pulling a streetside card trick in Louis Leterrier’s ludicrous yet endlessly entertaining Now You See Me.

The telltale smoke and mirrors routine is often the heart of films that present a magic act as a part of a grander scheme. One has to look no further than Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, which underlines the notion that audiences don’t really want to know how a trick has been pulled off, but instead want to be fooled. While The Prestige uses this premise to explore an obsession with personal legacy, Now You See Me runs amok to create an increasingly baffling labyrinth of over-the-top con jobs and implausible sleigh-of-hand plot twists.

Like a dubious yet charming Chriss Angel act, Now You See Me creates the perfect illusion of a film with infinite tricks up its sleeve, but rounds off its final act with a reveal so befuddling that it actually makes audiences feel thoroughly fooled. This is the film’s charm: a giddy, slick blockbuster through and through, Now You See Me knows how to keep you hooked, and by the time you see through the lies and secrets, the curtain falls, and the illusion is complete.

Four street magicians — renowned illusionist Daniel Atlas, washed-up mentalist Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and brilliant pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) — receive a mysterious invitation from a benefactor, who turns them into an international sensation overnight. Now dubbed the Four Horsemen, the gang stages three renegade magic acts that double as crimes. French banks are robbed, an insurance magnate is hoodwinked, and a safe is stolen from under the nose of frustratingly incompetent FBI officers.

This is a world where flagrant displays of criminality have no real bearing on criminal prosecution, as the Horsemen are always several steps ahead of law enforcement. Hot on their flamboyant heels is FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), whose no-nonsense attitude might have been worth rooting for if he wasn’t so painfully obtuse. But then Rhodes’ moronic behavior is revealed to be just another ruse, as he’s the mysterious benefactor who transformed the Horsemen into a global sensation. It is a twist that comes out of nowhere, with no thematic or visual giveaways, no matter how closely you look.

But the Rhodes reveal doesn’t require any set-up thanks to how audaciously — and heavy-handedly — it tints the climax. Is Rhodes’ master plan too elaborate and convoluted? Absolutely. But it reveals Ruffalo’s overly serious, defiantly thick-headed act as a hapless investigative officer to be, well, an act. As French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) explains, logical explanations for a world where stolen bank money floods the stage or powerful insurance magnates are left bankrupt in broad daylight are futile. Now You See Me functions within the ambit of movie magic alone, accomplishing the impossible in a way where the how is irrelevant.

There are some easy-to-miss details the film peppers throughout its 115-minute spectacle that are almost clever, lending more weight to the brand of self-aware irrationality that the film wears on its sleeve. There’s also some shameless sequel branding. At one point, our heroes are inducted into the Eye, a Mason-esque secret society for people who are really, really good at magic. That’s all revealed to be nothing more than a warm-up that sets the stage for the next act, i.e. the sequel.

While such stalling would generally feel obnoxious, Now You See Me pulls it off with a cognizant, tongue-in-cheek charm, welcoming us to embrace the illusion while letting us in on the joke. This is an extravagantly stylish blockbuster heist-thriller meant to deceive and entertain, and it is difficult to fault Leterrier’s film for doing what it promises. As for the trend of ridiculously stylized trickery that continues in the sequel, well, the show must go on.

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