Summit

The most preposterous scene in Now You See Me 2—a movie brimming with preposterous scenes—is one in which a group of magicians known as the Four Horsemen tries to smuggle a valuable computer chip out of a secret facility. Suddenly suspicious, their escort orders the guards to search them. The slender chip is attached to a playing card, which the Horsemen attempt to conceal through sleight-of-hand tricks amongst themselves. As the pat-down continues, the magicians’ moves grow more elaborate. After a few minutes, the card is flying around the room in defiance of all known physical laws—from one Horseman’s hand, to the bottom of another’s shoe, up through another Horseman’s sleeve, down a pant leg, under a collar, into a bra, and so on. It’s like a scene out of a Harry Potter film—but with more Muggles, less fun, and (somehow) less logic.

The sequence perhaps captures everything that’s wrong with Now You See Me 2: Magic is supposed to inspire wonder, even if the audience knows it’s all smoke and mirrors and hidden trapdoors and misdirection. But very little about this hollow sequel to 2013’s heist thriller Now You See Me feels mysterious; its biggest set-pieces will make viewers ask not “Whoa, how’d they do that?” but “Wait, huh?” At the center of both films are The Four Horsemen, a group of illusionists following the orders of an ancient magician’s alliance called The Eye. Their “tests” often involve exposing corrupt businessmen or giving jilted people their money back, which turns them into global heroes and gets them in trouble with the FBI (naturally). The sequel, directed by Jon M. Chu, takes the worst elements of the first—a bloated plot, excessive CGI—and doubles down on them over an exhausting 129-minute running time. 

Now You See Me 2 (technically titled Now You See Me: The Second Act) picks up where its predecessor left off. Hiding from law enforcement, the Horsemen have a new leader in Dylan Rhodes, the FBI agent who hunted them for the entire first movie only to reveal (spoiler alert!) at the end that he’s the mastermind feeding the Horsemen their orders, as well as the son of a famed, late magician. Only three of the original Horsemen remain—the pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), the surly J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), and the hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson)—after its one female member (Isla Fisher) bailed. Here, she’s replaced by a new woman, Lula (Lizzy Caplan), who almost immediately points out the tokenism at work: “I’m the girl Horseman!” (Indeed, it’s a dude-heavy affair—the gender breakdown may be the most authentic thing about this movie).

The action really begins after the Horsemen’s attempt to hijack the keynote event at Octa, an evil Apple-like company, goes horribly awry. The gang is split up from Dylan, whose double-agent ways are unveiled on live TV, forcing him to go on the run. Feeling abandoned, the Horsemen find themselves at the mercy of the wealthy and eccentric recluse Walter Maybry, played by none other than the actor whose face is synonymous with a very different kind of magic—Daniel Radcliffe. Water gives the Horsemen a choice: They can help him steal an Octa-developed computer chip capable of de-encrypting all the data in the world (yes) in exchange for new identities. Or they can die.

Also in the Horsemen’s orbit is an imprisoned “magic debunker” named Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), whom Dylan blames for his father’s death and framed out of revenge in the last film. The two begin an uneasy alliance as Dylan tries to locate the missing Horsemen, but that’s about as sensical as their storyline gets. (On the heels of everyone is an exasperated team of FBI agents who barely register as a threat.)

All of which is to say that, despite the film’s constant fourth-wall-breaking dialogue about how “seeing is not believing” and “the eye can lie,” there isn’t actually much beneath the surface. Fascinating themes and ideas hover at the margins—the malleability of perception, the virtues of inspiring awe in a world where technology has ably supplanted magic—but the film mostly keeps them hidden behind a curtain. Even the movie’s heavy-handed populist messages about digital privacy and corporate transparency feel strangely remote, perhaps because Now You See Me 2 is more invested in making every scene look as cool as humanly possible.

Take the absurd card-smuggling scene—only worse than the motion sickness it induced was the sense that the sequence was supposed to be the casual magic lover’s equivalent of seeing Don Draper delivering a brilliant ad pitch. Much of the rest of the film is bogged down by obnoxious slow motion, slick montages, and songs that make you feel like you’re walking into a really loud club (though, the use of Lil Kim and 50 Cent’s “Magic Stick” at one point was easily one of the highlights). The original film was guilty of much of the same, but its plot seems positively streamlined compared to the sequel’s. By the time Now You See Me 2 enters its final act, the audience is prepared for even the most outrageous reversals and tricks (resurrecting a pigeon, transporting people to a different continent, stopping rain) and that nothing surprises.

For the biggest Now You See Me fans, there may be enough to make the sequel worth seeing, though maybe not in theaters. Caplan as the kooky Lula and Radcliffe as the unhinged Walter are occasional comedic delights, despite their thinly written characters. When the film’s story moves to Macau, it has fun playing on the protagonists’ Western-centric assumptions (when one character brings up Chinese food, Merritt remarks, “I think where we are, they just call it food”). But for anyone else, Now You See Me 2 will strain the limits of patience and belief, suspended or otherwise: When it comes to this flashy but empty tribute to the wonders of magic, seeing really is believing.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.