Now You See Me 2 may be the most unnecessary film of the century. Say what you will about how the commercial success of one film necessitates the need for a sequel from a financial standpoint, but some movies are best left as incredible, one-off experiences. 2014’s Now You See Me was lightning in a bottle. A fun, successful fluke that filled a demand for non-franchise entertainment roughly one year before franchise fatigue would begin to plague the entire film industry. If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that audiences no longer feel every decent movie needs a second chapter, and there is more than enough evidence to back up this rationale present within this film.
A year has past since The Horsemen disappeared from the public eye, and somewhere along the line Henley (Isla Fisher, who does not appear in this movie) decided to skip town. The gang’s only female member has since been replaced with Lula (Lizzy Caplan), a magician known for pulling a hat out of a rabbit who was discovered by Dylan (Mark Ruffalo), but otherwise everyone is exactly as we left them. Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) is still hungry for power, Merritt (Woody Harrelson) is providing comedic relief, and Jack Wilder (the ever-wonderful Dave Franco)—who the public still believes to be dead—is still a horrendously underutilized fifth wheel.
The return of The Horsemen initially revolves around a young Steve Jobs type whose latest cell phone is secretly stealing its users’ data. After their performance is hacked by an unknown third party, The Horsemen attempt to flee, but after jumping off a roof in New York City they land in the kitchen of a restaurant in Macau, the Las Vegas of China. There they meet Merritt’s twin brother (also played by Woody Harrelson), who introduces the team to another mysterious tech billionaire (Daniel Radcliffe) who wants to hire the magicians to steal a computer chip that will allow for total global domination. The Horsemen say no at first, but they’re ultimately left with no choice—or are they?
Like all forgettable sequels, Now You See Me 2 is little more than an excuse to see the characters people loved from the first film do the same thing they did before, only now the stakes are a bit higher. Aside from a few narrative flourishes, which largely involve revealing more about Dylan’s history for the sake of feigning dramatic heft, the film largely relies on the same exact structure of its predecessors. The Horsemen begin on their own, join forces to execute a needlessly complicated performance, and soon find themselves doing the work of bad men for those individuals’ personal gain. Then, just when hope seems lost, the group executes an elaborate bait and switch that mirrors the final act of the first film in every way except location. London is far lovelier to look at than the industrial side of New York City, but the endgame is always the same, and as a result it’s hard to ever feel engaged with the sequel’s afterthought of a story.
Now You See Me 2’s greatest sin is that, despite being a movie that revolves around people who have mastered the art of deception, not a single sequence can hide the fact this movie feels created entirely to build a universe ripe for further franchise installments. From the opening scene to the literal final frames, each and every major sequence is underscored by references to elusive magic overseers known as The Eye and the Horsemen’s quest to join their ranks. It’s as if screenwriter Ed Solomon was so desperate to ensure he could count on another paycheck from Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate that he strung together just enough trick shots (pun intended) to guarantee himself a call for a third entry. The result of this is a movie that is all setup with next to no payoff. There are reveals, sure, but they all exist to aide the clear desire to turn this pair of magic heist movies into a full-blown trilogy.
What works for the film is two-fold. The first being Woody Harrelson’s dual performances, which provide a great deal of comedic relief to the film, and the other is the slick direction of Jon M. Chu. The use of CGI is far more present in this film than the last, but while Chu makes little effort to hide this fact he does use the magic of computers to take viewers further into the tricks of The Horsemen than the film’s predecessor. One memorable scene in particular, where the group must hide a computer chip by throwing it to one another in a secure room like a playing card while being patted down by guards, finds the camera following the chip in and out of sleeves with a smoothness that simply would not be possible without the aide of CGI. It’s fun to look at, but ultimately it’s just another distraction from the fact the film has little to offer viewers outside a rehash of previous events.
I’m not saying Now You See Me 2 is not watchable, as it most certainly is, but as far as mind-numbing moviegoing experiences go these days this film is in a league all its own. If it were a food it would have the nutritional value and hunger-subsiding capabilities of dime store rock candy. You could skip this film entirely and attend the inevitable Now You See Me 3 without having missed a beat of the central narrative. I imagine viewers who catch this film on a plane or several months down the line on Netflix or Amazon Prime will have just as much fun with it as those who pay $15 to see it on the big screen, and they’ll likely forget it just as fast. You may have wanted more of The Horsemen, but no movie fan wants more of the same, and that is exactly what you get with Now You See Me 2.