Bank-robbing magicians is the basic idea behind "Now You See Me," and it's such a ridiculous and yet ingenious premise for a movie that it's a wonder it hasn't been done before now. The marriage of magic to the heist film genre is a natural fit; both require a fair amount of misdirection, sleight-of-hand, and a nimble touch from the orchestrator of the proceedings. French director Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter," "Clash of the Titans"), as his filmography might suggest, doesn't quite possess the light touch necessary to get away with the trickery he's trying to pull here, but still delivers an entertaining, zippy ride — so long as your brain remains locked securely in the off position.
The film begins with introductions to four separate magicians, each masters in a different variety of magic. First up is Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, channeling his "Social Network" performance), an exceedingly cocky street illusionist. Then Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a somewhat down-on-his-luck mentalist; Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher, "The Great Gatsby"), an escape artist; and finally, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, "21 Jump Street"), a young pickpocket, who is the greenest and most unproven of the bunch.
The four tricksters are brought together by an unseen benefactor to form a kind of superteam of illusionists. The purpose behind the union is a mystery that may or may not have something to do with an ancient cult of magicians known as The Eye. The team, collectively known as The Four Horsemen, attract the attention of the authorities, both international and domestic, when their first act together is to publicly rob a bank in Paris from the stage of their live show in Vegas.
FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned to the case and tasked with a rookie partner from Interpol, Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent, "Inglourious Basterds"). The agents must solve the puzzle of how and why The Four Horsemen and pulling off their heists, entering into a game of cat and mouse with the band of thieves, who promise two more acts in their master plan. Also factoring into the fun is Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), the Horsemen's financier, and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a professional debunker of magician's trade secrets who is out to expose the tricks of The Four Horsemen for his own personal gain.
It's obvious that every member of the cast is having a ball, and they're all skilled enough performers to make their rather hastily sketched characters engaging. Even the distinct skill set of each magician grows increasingly muddled as the film goes on. For example, by late in the film we're apparently meant to surmise that the Franco character's sleight-of-hand talents would naturally translate into significant martial arts skill.
The actors all have a nice dynamic together, especially the members of the Horsemen, though of the four, Fisher is sadly given the least to do. The script (attributed to three writers: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt) never allows her character to properly demonstrate her talents after a memorable introduction where she's seemingly devoured by a pack of hungry piranhas. Ruffalo and Laurent actually become the main protagonists of the film, and they're quite good in their roles, but the film keeps trying to mash the characters together in a romance plot line that's never really convincing. Caine and Freeman, meanwhile, are allowed a number of scenes where they sit around and drolly taunt one another, which is actually pretty fun to watch.
"Now You See Me" is a mindlessly diverting B-movie entertainment before it gets bogged down in its third act, trying to provide explanations for the endless plot twists. The fact that it's the rare summer film that isn't a remake or a sequel is something to be at least mildly respected in and of itself. It doesn't quite live up to the potential of the premise, but it's a fun ride while it lasts. The over reliance on CGI for a number of the tricks is a little disappointing, especially with a credit list that includes at least two "magic consultants." But Leterrier keeps the movie moving at a fast-enough pace that it speeds by without allowing viewers the time to really consider the plot, which doesn't hold up if you spend even a moment thinking about it after the credits roll. Although, I suppose every magic act requires an enormous suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. As Eisenberg's character repeatedly remarks, when it comes to illusions, the closer you look, the less you're likely to see. The line also unfortunately acts as a fairly accurate description of the movie itself.