As a sequel to a movie with a twist ending so over-the-top and improbable that it crossed over into the sublime, Now You See Me 2 has no option but to go bigger; if it can’t top Now You See Me’s reveal, which seemed like it came from the mind of Adaptation’s Donald Kaufman, it can at least up the ludicrous quotient, double-timing the convoluted plotting and embracing implausibility as an aesthetic. This time around, Robin Hood illusionists-turned-international-fugitives J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are whisked away to Macau alongside new recruit Lula (Lizzy Kaplan) for a nonsensical microchip heist that finds them crossing paths with Merritt’s evil twin brother (Harrelson in a wig), impersonating South African gangsters, and occasionally giving public performances. Like the later Step Up and Fast & Furious movies to which it owes so much, Now You See Me 2 exists in a world in which all conflicts are resolved the same way, except instead of dance-offs or gravity-defying car chases, it’s special-effects-assisted “illusions” that the movie doesn’t even try to plausibly explain.
A little credit is due to director Jon M. Chu—who cut his teeth on Step Up 2 The Streets and Step Up 3D—for at least giving the sleight-of-hand tricks a sense of choreographed motion, even if his direction of the chase scenes is completely incoherent. As in his mindboggling live-action Jem And The Holograms, the style is all over the place; there are some ineptly staged stunts and indecipherable fights, but also streaks of Ocean’s-esque dazzle, like an early hotel tech conference heist that involves hypnosis, a gruesome severed hand trick, and layers upon layers of tear-away costumes. But if Chu doesn’t seem comfortable with the swooping, lens-flare-speckled flashiness that director Louis Leterrier brought to the first film, he seems even less interested than his predecessor in creating the impression of a recognizably real world—which is a good thing, at least for a movie about a superstar heist crew called the Horsemen that involves twins, multiple secret identities, and a global corporate surveillance plot that can only be foiled through the use of stage magic.
Making next to no attempt to explain its over-complicated internal mythology, the movie hops back and forth across the globe with no regard for time or space, cutting between the Horsemen and FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) as he springs magic-debunking bad guy Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) from minimum-security prison and proceeds to decipher clues with the kind of logic popularly associated with the Adam West Batman series. All of this is being orchestrated by legally dead tech billionaire and amateur magician Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) or possibly Bradley himself, or maybe even the centuries-old secret society of magicians known as the Eye. True to form, the movie more or less refuses to explain the actual twist ending; up until then, it runs on a regular five-minute schedule of reversals, where nothing is ever as it seems. The average film might pull a one-time gag of having a character start speaking, say, Mandarin, halfway through the movie. Now You See Me 2 does it three times.
Which raises the question: Is anything in the Now You See Me-verse actually real? Or is it twists all the way down? Dropping the first film’s unlikely explanations of the Horsemen’s acts (flash powder, holograms, etc.) in favor of comically evasive partial answers, Now You See Me 2 gets giddy on its own unreality. That sense of freewheeling excess extends from the chip heist—set in a metal-free clean room—to the nonstop contrivances and coincidences to the cast. Much the same way as the first film played off Freeman’s air of authority by making him the dupe, Now You See Me 2 gives its returning leads a chance to send up their screen personas, with Eisenberg’s Atlas made into even more of an egomaniacal dick, Harrelson playing the evil twin as even more of a stoner softie, and Ruffalo given the role of someone who is only pretending to be a squirrelly, determined investigator. Meanwhile, the perpetually game Radcliffe tackles his role like a pre-emptive parody of the Bond villain he will probably play in two decades.