The magician heist movie "Now You See Me 2" disappears with not a poof, but in a hyper-kinetic blur of hectic plot mechanics, ceaselessly nattering characters and so many ploys of misdirection that the film's own direction got lost up someone's sleeve long ago. Now you see it, now you don't. Did you care that you saw it? Why did you see it, anyway? Is that why you look like you need a nap?
Yet the cast is one reason to catch Jon M. Chu's sequel to the surprise 2013 hit. It's an odd assortment but a talented one that includes Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. They don't get the chance to sink their teeth into anything much but in the summertime, you usually need to buy a ticket to a superhero movie for such an ensemble.
And there's something almost quaint about the two "Now You See Me" films. They are diverting and harmless and the fate of the world, pleasantly, does not hang in the balance. They're perfect for fans of "Ocean's Eleven" that are looking for weaker filmmaking, a little less star power and a whole lot more playing cards.
In "Now You See Me 2," the Four Horsemen, having gone into hiding following their Las Vegas exploits of the first film, return. They're a group of magicians led — curiously, given the alternatives — by Jesse Eisenberg's slight-of-hand artist. The others are Harrelson's hypnotist, Dave Franco's street magician and a new addition played by Lizzy Caplan (replacing Isla Fisher) whose sarcastic flare steals the movie.
The Horsemen are like a fantasy dreamed by David Copperfield, a co-producer whose show inspired the films. When not trying to one-up each other's tricks, the Horsemen perform feats of illusion that unmask real corruption. In the world of "Now You See Me," they are extravagantly (and bizarrely) famous, cheered by mobs on the streets and pursued in vain by the feds (Ruffalo plays the lead agent).
In "Now You See Me 2," their flashy return is spoiled by a wealthy tech whiz in hiding (Daniel Radcliffe), who constructs an elaborate revenge against the magicians that transports them around the globe to Macau, presumably for the purpose of drawing in Chinese moviegoers.
The movie, scripted by Ed Solomon, is such a constant barrage of absurdly implausible tricks, followed by explanations of how they were done, that "Now You See Me 2" feels like the work of a feverish, manic magician who can't stop pulling rabbits out of hats. Chu, a veteran of multiple Justin Bieber documentaries and several "Step Up" films, cracks up the pace and never holds a shot much longer than a second. And when everything is a manipulation — one illusion after another — nothing comes as a surprise.
It feels like a lost opportunity because both "Now You See Me" films have a pleasant enough preposterousness. It's hard to dislike a movie that adds a curly-haired evil twin brother for Woody Harrelson.
But magic always feels a little redundant in the movies. By itself, cinema is a grand magic act that never gives away its tricks (well, except for director commentaries on DVDs). Maybe that's why "Now You See Me 2" can't slow down. It knows it's always being upstaged by the hocus pocus of its own medium.
What: "Now You See Me 2." Directed by Jon M. Chu. A Summit Entertainment release
With: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Daniel Radcliffe, David Franco, Lizzy Caplan, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
Star rating (out of four):
MPAA rating: PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13 — for "violence and some language"
Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield); Berkshire Mall 10 (Lanesborough); and North Adams Movieplex 8