What is stage magic? It is nothing more—or less—than the art of misdirection. Of making us believe we've seen something when we haven't. Of keeping us from seeing something that we should have noticed. It is, in the words of one of Now You See It's magicians, "targeted deception."
And there are plenty of targets and plenty of deception in this movie.
As the curtain opens, four talented-but-struggling New York City magicians receive something of a summons: a Tarot card with an address, time and date.
But before I tell you what happens when they answer that summons, I must do what any good emcee would, and that is introduce the people on the stage: J. Daniel Atlas is a prestidigitator who, despite his world-class sleight-of-hand skills, still finds himself performing card tricks on the sidewalk. Merritt McKinley is a disgraced former celebrity hypnotist and mentalist who now bilks the weak-minded out of their cash. Jack Wilder knows how to work a crowd too—both in terms of his illusions and the pockets he picks along the way. And, finally, Daniel's former assistant (and ex-girlfriend) Henley Reeves is a Houdini-style escape artist whose latest show involves a tank of water, handcuffs and … piranhas.
OK. Now, upon their arrival at the mysterious address—an abandoned apartment—the magicians find a holographic blueprint for a trick so preposterous, so outrageous that none of them could ever pull it off alone. It's a trick that doubles as an initiation for a shadowy, super-secret cadre of the world's best magicians known as The Eye.
In a flash, our intrepid "heroes," now dubbed the Four Horsemen, are performing a show in Las Vegas. Their trick? "Teleporting" a member of the audience to his bank in France, where he helps them steal 2.6 million euros. He thinks he's been magically zapped into his bank's vault. So does the audience, which is now millions richer as bank notes—somehow making the instantaneous return trip to America—rain down upon them.
The FBI and Interpol, however, are reasonably sure it wasn't real magic that relieved said bank of so much of its cash. And FBI agent Dylan Rhodes is determined to discover how the magicians pulled off their heist. Helping him is French Interpol agent Alma Dray. When their theories about what's happened go up in stage smoke, however, they're forced to turn to someone with more expertise: former magician turned magic-debunker Thaddeus Bradley, who's made a fortune selling videos that show how magicians do their tricks.
Meanwhile (and isn't there always a meanwhile in a big production like this?), business magnate Arthur Tressler, who's bankrolling the Four Horsemen, knows a good thing when he sees it and, presto, they've got another gig, this time in the Big Easy. It's there, though, that they drain Tressler's own account of $143 million, depositing it in audience members' accounts—with Alma and Rhodes looking on, powerless to stop them.
Time for their final act: pilfering $5 billion from a massive vault deep in a warehouse in New York City.
Rhodes and Alma know what's coming. But that's likely not going to be enough to stop the apocalyptically named, Robin Hood-imitating magicians from pulling off their most audacious stunt yet … and then disappearing into the seedy core of the Big Apple as the newest members of The Eye.
Vaguely positive statements are made about the importance of belief, faith and mystery. …
Alma and Rhodes have very different attitudes toward mystery and the possibility of some bigger, overarching story being woven into our lives. He's concrete and rationalistic, while she's a bit of mystic. She repeatedly talks about the importance of believing and having faith—though, tellingly, what she believes in and what she thinks we should have faith in are never spelled out. Merritt, a master hypnotist, repeatedly hypnotizes people. At one point he's dubbed the "Cardinal of Clairvoyance," though it's clear he's doesn't have any paranormal or supernatural powers.
The Four Horsemen moniker is, of course, a reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation. They're recruited via Tarot cards that bear four characters: a Hermit, Death, a High Priestess, and a Lover. Eventually we learn that the centuries-old secret order of master magicians the crew is being invited to join is a clandestine fraternity of prestidigitators that dates back to ancient Egypt. It was originally called The Eye of Horus, an Egyptian god. Images and hieroglyphics related to Horus and his Illuminati-esque eye are seen several times. Alma reads a mystical-looking tome called The Guardians of Horus.
In New Orleans, Arthur Tressler absentmindedly handles a voodoo doll while threatening Thaddeus Bradley. Thaddeus ominously tells Tressler about an old voodoo superstition that says if you use a voodoo doll incorrectly (apparently without employing a skilled medium as an intermediary), the wrath you wish to visit on someone else will blow back on yourself. (Which is exactly what happens.)
Daniel uses his magic shtick to impress women, one of whom is very eager to have sex with him after a show. They kiss and embrace. Most of her clothes come off. (We see her in bra and underwear). A statement Daniel makes about being able to do a card trick 52 different ways gets twisted by the woman into a sexual come-on.
Rhodes and Alma kiss. Daniel and Henley have a romantic—sexual—past, identified via suggestive dialogue. Merritt makes several creepy passes at Henley, one of which involves a rude anatomical metaphor. Sexual proclivities (including S&M and role-playing), masturbation, affairs, oral sex, nudity and cross-dressing are talked about, sometimes crudely. Alma's shown in gauzy, clingy, cleavage-baring tops. Henley wears outfits with plunging necklines, as do several other women.
A wild car chase involves police and FBI pursuers; it ends with a vehicle flipping and exploding. Rhodes tries unsuccessfully to pull the car's driver from the burning wreckage, and the arm of a sheet-covered cadaver is seen on a gurney.
Chase scenes on foot plunge heedlessly through crowds. A melee between Jack and Rhodes and Fuller involves Jack "shooting" theatrical pyrotechnics, which look like dramatic fireballs. Jack pulls Fuller's sport coat behind him, thrusting the dangling sleeves into a whirling garbage disposal. This keeps the man anchored to the sink (but doesn't chew into his hands).
A single gunshot misses. Alma slams Rhodes' head down onto a bar. Merritt instructs 12 hypnotized audience members to tackle Rhodes.
Henley performs an escape routine in which she's handcuffed to the bottom of a Plexiglas tank full of water. She has one minute to escape, after which a vat full of hungry piranhas is added. The water turns bloody, and it seems she's been eaten … before triumphantly emerging elsewhere.
Crude or Profane Language
One mumbled f-word. More than 15 s-words. God's name is misused a half-dozen times, sometimes paired with "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused once. "A‑‑" and "a‑‑hole" are said nearly 10 times (combined). "H‑‑‑" tallies in at eight, "d‑‑n" at three and "d‑‑k" at one. We see an obscene hand gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
People drink wine or beer, usually in restaurants or bars. We see sweeping scenes of people drinking in the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Rhodes seeks solace in a glass. He tells Alma a story about once having consumed four beer bongs at a college party.
Other Negative Elements
As the plot unfolds, we gradually learn that everything transpiring has been secretly and systematically engineered to "right" an old wrong, and that the banks and individuals getting fleeced by the magicians supposedly have it coming to them.
The movie wants us to buy into this ethical vanishing act, this feel-good illogic: Don't think too deeply about it; just ignore the trickery behind it all. Because if you do pay attention and watch every move, you all too soon realize that these "heroes" are in fact lawless and arrogant vigilantes. (And that kind of labeling isn't good for business!) In reality, about the best you can say of them is that they try to take care of one another along the way, and that they don't actually keep any of the stolen loot for themselves.
Tressler tries to intimidate Thaddeus, saying he'll use his lawyers to cripple the magician debunker if Thaddeus doesn't cooperate with him.
Now You See Me is a crisp crime caper that, while superficially entertaining, is devoid of much that could be viewed as positive when you "come in closer," as Daniel instructs the audience to do. Just as he and his Four Horsemen comrades repeatedly blind audiences and pursuers alike to their true intent, so the movie's narrative sleight of hand strives to convince us that we need not look at its ugly underpinnings.
First we're meant to excuse all the stealing that goes on—after all, the loot is going to people who've gone through hard times and who've been taken advantage of. (It's similar to the way we're invited to root for "lovable" thieves in movies such as Ocean's Eleven or The Italian Job.)
Then add tenuous connections between run-of-the-mill stage magic with occult versions such as Egyptian mythology, Tarot cards and voodoo; and some gratuitous sexual content along with a good bit of profanity. Suddenly, the movie that at first feels fairly airy starts getting heavy. The filmmakers try to tack on a final upbeat message about the importance of faith and belief, but it goes no further than believing in belief and having faith in faith.
Poof. You end up with nothing to show for your time and indulgence except some bad words rattling around in your brain and the strong sense that with the right tools and skills, you too might be able to stick it to those bad guys in your life. And that's about as empty as a magician's magic hat after his rabbit crawls out.