By CHRISTOPHER LAWRENCE
Las Vegas Review-Journal
The first performance by the magic supergroup known as The Four Horsemen takes place inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
By the time “Now You See Me” stumbles to its conclusion, though, you’ll have witnessed so many cheats that the whole thing will feel more like one of those games of Three-card Monte on the pedestrian bridges outside the casino.
The heist movie gets off to such a strong start that the studio released its first four minutes online.
Sleight-of-hand specialist J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) performs elaborate card tricks on city streets, seemingly just to seduce an audience member.
Mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) partially hypnotizes a woman, figures out that her husband is having an affair with her sister, then cleans out the husband’s wallet before he’ll make her forget she’s being cheated on.
Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) bends spoons and picks pockets on a New York ferry. And escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) chains herself underwater, beneath a time-delayed tank of piranha, in an L.A. nightclub.
After being watched by a hoodie-wearing stranger, they’re summoned from all parts of the country by mysterious tarot cards and are next seen a year later as The Four Horsemen, the toast of Las Vegas.
But their Strip showcase is merely a front for them to pull off a spectacular bank robbery, then shower the audience with the proceeds, which draws the attention of both famed magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and FBI Special Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo).
The Horsemen have fantastic chemistry. Eisenberg and Harrelson quickly fall back into their “Zombieland” rhythms. And they both keep busy by flirting with Fisher’s Henley, who was Atlas’ assistant and love interest right up until the point he told her she was too big to fit through the trapdoor of one of his tricks.
Eisenberg draws upon that smartest-guy-in-the-room obnoxiousness he mastered in “The Social Network.” When he kicks that audience member out of his apartment, he assures her he’ll call. Her reminder that he doesn’t have her number is dismissed with, “I’m magic. I’ll find it.”
Harrelson is a hoot, recapturing that “White Men Can’t Jump” twinkle in his eye as his live-wire mentalist somehow susses out that Rhodes’ partner at the FBI takes part in something called Tranny Tuesdays.
But after spending the first chunk of the movie establishing their off-the-charts likability, everyone but Franco’s Wilder disappears for what feels like at least a half-hour as the focus shifts to Agent Rhodes’ investigation.
Now, Ruffalo is a terrific actor. And, sure, he was in “The Avengers.” But of “Now You See Me’s” eight main characters — including Michael Caine as the Horsemen’s benefactor and Melanie Laurent as an Interpol detective — his is the least interesting. By a wide margin.
The whole time he’s trying to uncover what’s really going on with the Horsemen, you’ll find yourself wondering what kind of mischief Eisenberg and Harrelson are getting themselves into. Or wishing the “Dark Knight” duo of Caine and Freeman could spend more time together.
Most of the magic is so clearly created with digital effects, it destroys any sense of wonder. Although, there’s so much mumbo jumbo thrown in about a secret society of magicians, maybe they really can bend the laws of physics at will.
Directed by Louis Leterrier (“Clash of the Titans”) from a script credited to Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt, “Now You See Me” has some very interesting ideas buried deep inside it. Especially as The Horsemen become Robin Hood-style folk heroes.
Or at least that’s what we’re told. Aside from a few TV news headlines and a short bit with Conan O’Brien, you never get that sense. The crowds that gather for their big finale just come off like a bunch of money grubbers looking for free loot.
And the less said about the finale’s big reveal, the better.
It’s all so silly, Ruffalo’s Rhodes ultimately asks, “Why go through such an elaborate and dangerous plan?”
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.