The "NOW That's What I Call Music!" anthology CD series is up to volume 58 of pop hits, which makes me wonder why all movies aren't titled like this week's Hollywood sequel "Now You See Me 2." It's a title that evokes magic, but also comprises a command: You will see this latest product..."2," except that you really don't have to.
Not much has changed in the world of "Now You See Me." Though director Louis Letterier has been replaced by Jon M. Chu (born in Palo Alto, raised in Los Altos), the brief remains the same: "'Ocean's 11' with magicians." Big stars, jazzy music, a lot of flash, almost no dazzle. The plot defies description -- in fact, I wager half the cast couldn't explain it to you -- but it again concerns the supposedly Robin Hood-esque band of magicians calling themselves "The Horsemen." Persistently slipping from the grasp of law enforcement, they expose or rob from the rich and sprinkle a bit on the poor on their way out.
The sequel shifts Mark Ruffalo's character, FBI double-agent Dylan Rhodes, to center stage, but this remains an ensemble property, featuring Jesse Eisenberg as self-styled ringleader J. Daniel Atlas, Woody Harrelson as hypnotist Merritt McKinney (and, this time, his twin brother!), Dave Franco as slight-of-hand whiz Jack Wilder and, filling a void left by Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan as sassy illusionist Lula. Magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) is still in the picture, as is treacherous tycoon Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), not to mention Sanaa Lathan as Rhodes' FBI colleague and Daniel Radcliffe as a dorky rival to the Horsemen.
Admittedly, that's a lot of acting talent to throw at a picture, and it's the reason to see the redundant "Now You See Me 2," if any (who doesn't want to see Ruffalo get his Jackie Chan on for three minutes?). Because the rest is pointless sound and fury: Not only can the center not hold, but there is no center to begin with. While carrying out deeply unrealistic scams, the characters behave stupidly in a far-from-airtight plot, and it doesn't help that the heroes are smug criminals sticking it to even worse criminals. The story mostly speeds along at an obnoxious rate and pitch, the better to misdirect from the next dumb abracadabra plot twist, but good luck hanging in for over two hours of it.
The largest problem still facing this franchise is that magic on screen can't impress us in the least when do-anything with computer-generated special effects is so plentiful. Erstwhile star of magic TV specials David Copperfield has been brought on as co-producer and consultant to attempt to combat this problem, but to little effect (there's one sorta snazzy illusion to introduce Caplan). Mostly, the best "Now You See Me 2" has to offer regarding magic are dumb epigrams like "Seeing is believing, but is it truth?" Thank you, Morgan Freeman. Can we go home now?