In the interest of brevity, and to avoid the spike in my blood pressure every time it comes up: The original 2013 Now You See Me was a bad movie. It was deceptive in its badness, because it offered a bunch of slick surface pleasures, building up to one of those finales where you can imagine everyone involved was smirking and thinking, "Betcha didn't see that coming." Which was true—because you couldn't see "that" coming, because it was a twist built on a massive narrative cheat. And it's profoundly dispiriting to see something stupid somehow convince a lot of people that it's smart, simply because of how loudly and brashly it keeps insisting on it, despite lacking any substance for the claim. It was like the Donald Trump of movies.
For this reason, the prospect of Now You See Me 2 was not a cause for rejoicing. Yet enough of the things that were painfully wrong in the original get fixed this time around that it's actually not a chore to sit through. Hooray for the simple pleasures of watching incompetence graduate to mediocrity.
The follow-up picks up around 18 months after the events of the first film, with Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) still working for the FBI, keeping the authorities off the trail of his still-in-hiding fugitive magician cohorts known as The Horsemen. With Isla Fisher's Henley having retired from the group, a newcomer named Lula (Lizzy Caplan) has been recruited to join Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson) and Jack (Dave Franco) in a new mission to take down a tech company whose new cell phone might be able to hijack users' personal data. But the mission might be a trap—one that's built on someone getting even with the Horsemen for Rhodes' successful plot to avenge his dead father.
On its most basic structural level, NYSM2 improves upon the original simply by providing a story that's actually about the magicians. Where Now You See Me spent most of its time with Rhodes and his Interpol partner as he fake-investigated the quartet's illusion-based crimes, turning The Horsemen into an almost completely personality-free bunch of pieces on a game board, this story allows them to remain center stage. And they turn out to be a lot more fun—including a spark of energy from the addition of Caplan—when they're not just enigmatic cameo appearances.
That's largely because of one of the other key shifts in focus: It's now a magical heist caper, rather than a procedural about investigating a magical heist. The central set piece finds the four magicians attempting to smuggle a powerful encryption-cracking cell phone data card out of a secure facility, requiring a ton of nifty sleight-of-hand and physics-defying card-throwing to thwart the guards' pat-downs. It's clearly preposterous, but it's also kind of a blast, as director John M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) lets us in on every feint and dodge. Giving our heroes a clear goal against a single clear antagonist—a tech billionaire (Daniel Radcliffe) who has faked his own death—allows for a focus that the original lacked, even when the inevitable whiffs of a grand conspiracy start to overtake things.
That, unfortunately, is where Now You See Me 2 is most like its unpleasant predecessor. These are movies built on the promise that a metric ton of moving parts will come together in a startling Big Reveal, one that will seem like a brilliant culmination of clockwork plotting. Ed Solomon's script doesn't pull nearly the same dirty tricks that he was guilty of the first time around, but he still packs in way too many characters—including Rhodes' returning adversaries Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), and even Harrelson playing an ill-conceived dual role as Merritt's evil twin—and payoffs that feel as though they leap several dozen logical steps to their conclusion.
It's all moving along so quickly, that they hope you don't care that the Horsemen are like superheroes who develop whatever superpower is called for by the situation at hand. But, hey, sometimes it's okay to be satisfied by small blessings, like not emerging actively pissed off at what you've just seen. That was one trick I didn't expect this sequel to pull off.