A serious attempt to understand the cuckoo-bananas plot of 'Now You See Me'

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Some movies are confusing, and some movies are complicated, and some movies are silly. And then there’s Now You See Me, the magician bank heist thriller, which is also an FBI chase movie, which is also about a Dan Brown-esque secret society of Ancient Egyptian magicians who use real magic to fight crime or something. The whole thing is constructed like an Abrams/Nolan mega-mystery where everything’s a twist and everyone has secret motivations, except none of the motivations make sense, and all of the twists involve mirrors. Specifically, mirrors used in unusual ways.

Let me try to explain. SPOILERS from here. The movie begins with an extended introduction to four magicians with increasingly ludicrous names performing increasingly ludicrous magic. Daniel Atlas does the old “pick a card” trick, and somehow makes the 7 of Diamonds appear on the side of a New York skyscraper. (He bribed the building’s maintenance guy, because as we all know, building maintenance guys have access to a room where you can hit a specific button to make a 7 of Diamonds appear illuminated on the side of your building.) Merritt McKinney is a mentalist who hypnotizes a woman, figures out that her husband is cheating on her with her sister, shakes the husband down for $250, and then makes the woman forget about the affair. So he’s Professor X, literally, he is a telepath. (One of the weirdest parts of Now You See Me is that Merrit has to keep explaining what a “mentalist” is, because apparently no one has ever seen the popular CBS program The Mentalist.) Henley Reeves does the old chained-underwater trick, but adds in digital man-eating piranhas, and then pretends to be eaten alive, because magicians love piranhas. Jack Wilder just does a funny magic trick and then steals a guy’s wallet, which is at least realistic.

At this point, all four of them receive a mysterious invitation to an apartment in New York City, where they find futuristic equipment that creates futuristic holograms that look like Minority Report. They seem not at all surprised to find futuristic holograms floating in the air in front of them. At this point, you’re thinking three things: 1. They must be aliens. 2. They must be from the future. 3. These people are clearly the main characters of the movie. WRONG ON ALL COUNTS. The movie jumps forward a year in time, at which point the four magicians have become a crew of famous Vegas Magicians called The Four Horsemen. For their first trick, they apparently teleport a French guy halfway around the world to a bank, and they wind up beaming all the money from the French bank into the audience.

At this point, crusty FBI Agent Mark Ruffalo is called into the case. He’s joined by Interpol agent Mélanie Laurent, who is incredibly beautiful and clearly smart. Immediately, Ruffalo treats Laurent like she’s Murtaugh to his Riggs, even though they clearly like each other, because Mélanie Laurent is funny and beautiful and Mark Ruffalo has that perfect Ruffalized ten o’ clock shadow and those sad Ruffaleyes. This is also the point in the movie when you think Now You See Me is going to be a cat-and-mouse mystery, with Ruffalo/Laurent chasing the magician squad. However, this is also the point when you meet Thaddeus Bradley, who is played by Morgan Freeman and whose name is Thaddeus. Thaddeus is a former magician who has apparently made kabillions of dollars debunking other magicians’ magic. So basically, Now You See Me is set in a world where Morgan Freeman was the Masked Magician and the ’90s never ended.

Morgan Freeman reveals that the whole French-bank heist trick was just an illusion. Here is how the illusion worked:

1. The Four Horsemen targeted a random French Guy who banked at the French Bank. They went to Paris and used a wide variety of magic — subconscious suggestion, mind control — to convince him to go to Las Vegas and see their show on a specific date and time. This also involved getting the Random French Guy’s signature on a playing card.

2. They conducted an elaborate Ocean’s Eleven-ish heist, robbing over three million euros from an armored truck — a heist which included the use of a special instant-sleep syringe and three million duplicate euros.

3. At the specific moment that they were sending the actual euros into the audience in Las Vegas, they incinerated the duplicate euros in Paris, leaving only the Random French Guy’s signed playing card.

So basically, in the service of a magic trick, the Four Horsemen actually robbed a French bank.

By comparison, the Horsemen’s next trick is a bit less crazy. See, their patron is a wealthy Donald Trump-type played by Michael Caine. Oh, Michael Caine is in this movie, did I mention? Michael Caine accidentally reveals his special bank password and his special bank password question — “What was your first pet?” — and they steal over $100 million from him and give it to the good people of New Orleans. I want to stress this: In Now You See Me, it is possible to steal $140 million from one of the world’s wealthiest men as long as you know that his pet was named “Fluffy.”

Right about now is when you think the movie is going to be about the FBI chasing the Four Horsemen while Evil Rich Michael Caine teams up with Morgan Freeman to kill the Four Horsemen, but this is actually the point at which Michael Caine basically disappears from the movie. Oh, and I forgot to mention two things which are introduced randomly but wind up being hugely important to the end of the movie:

1. Back in the ’70s, Morgan Freeman ruined the career of one magician, who wound up doing a dangerous stunt — locking himself in a safe and sending that safe to the bottom of the East River. The magician never got out of the safe.

2. There is apparently a secret order of magicians, called the Eye, which dates back to Ancient Egypt and which uses real magic to rob from the rich and give to the poor, or something.

So the Four Horsemen are now fugitives on the run, just like in Natural Born Killers, and they have become celebrities for their crimes, just like in Natural Born Killers. I actually think it’s totally possible to watch this movie pretending that Woody Harrelson is his character from Natural Born Killers. Ruffalo and the FBI chase the magicians to the New York Hologram Loft, where Ruffalo has an awesome fight scene with Dave Franco of all people, and winds up in a car chase, and Dave Franco apparently dies. But that doesn’t matter, because the FBI figures out that the Four Horsemen are going to steal a safe from a Top Secret Warehouse. They go to the Top Secret Warehouse…and it turns out that the safe is already gone! But they intercept the safe and decide they’re going to follow the safe, since presumably that will lead them to the Horsemen. But when the safe arrives, they open it up: And it’s full of balloon animals! And then a lot of other stuff happens that I can’t even get into because my brain hurts, but all the money from the safe winds up in Morgan Freeman’s car, and the FBI thinks he robbed the bank, so they put him in prison.

Okay, so here’s what actually happened, per a closing montage:

1. Dave Franco faked his own death in the most elaborate way possible: The Four Horsemen stole a duplicate vehicle, and they were pushing that duplicate vehicle in front of a bus that Woody Harrelson was driving because he was pretending to be a New York bus driver, and they crashed the duplicate car on purpose with a cadaver inside.

2. The Four Horsemen arrived at the Top Secret Warehouse early and set up a gigantic mirror that would make it look like the safe was already gone. The movie says this is the same way magicians do the old disappearing-reappearing rabbit trick. I would argue that mirrors do not work that way.

3. The Four Horsemen created a duplicate safe, just like in Fast Five.

4. After sending the duplicate safe to the far side of New York, Dave Franco returned to the Top Secret Warehouse to steal the money from the actual safe, because apparently the maintenance guy at the Top Secret Warehouse was all like “Well, there’s no safe here anymore, might as well shut down the security cameras and the alarm system and really any other thing that would indicate there is an intruder.”

So basically, instead of just stealing a safe, the Four Horsemen pretended to steal the safe and then stole the safe. Oh, I forgot to mention that they hypnotized Common. Oh yeah, Common is in this movie!

Anyhow, at this point you’re primed to believe that the whole movie is secretly about time-traveling wizard aliens who are also ghosts dreaming the whole movie inside of a videogame created by Tommy Westphall. It’s at this point that Mark Ruffalo, who has spent the whole movie being the most lovably terrible FBI agent ever, reveals that he is actually the brilliant mastermind behind the whole thing. His father was the magician who drowned in the East River. He drowned because the safe malfunctioned, because the safe was made cheaply by the safe company that wound up being the company that owned the Top Secret Warehouse. His family didn’t get the insurance from his father’s death — and their insurance company was owned by Evil Rich Michael Caine, and the money would’ve come from the French Bank, and he also blamed Morgan Freeman for his father’s death. The movie ends with Mark Ruffalo hopping on his flying pig and riding into the sunset. No, actually the movie ends with Mark Ruffalo inducting the Four Horsemen into the secret order of the Eye. He does this by hopping on a Merry-Go-Round in Central Park and then disappearing, using real magic. Or maybe fake magic? Mark Ruffalo spent like thirty years climbing the ranks of the FBI specifically for this one act of vengeance, I think?

Oh also, I forgot to mention that Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent have fallen in love, just like Riggs and Murtaugh, and at the end of the movie he meets her in Paris and they throw a key off the lover’s bridge, and then the camera pans across all the keys at the bottom of the river. I think maybe because, like, Mark Ruffalo’s dad died at the bottom of the river because he didn’t have a key, but now Mark Ruffalo has found the key, and the key is love?

Did anyone else see this movie? Am I missing something? Was this movie actually setting up a whole franchise about magicians who solve the world’s problems using holograms? What should they call the sequel? Now You See Me Again? Now You See Me: Now You Don’t? Now You See Three?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

Read more:
‘Now You See Me': How real illusionists made movie magic
EW review: ‘Now You See Me’
‘Now You See Me’ trailer: Now you see Michael Caine
Jesse Eisenberg on learning magic from experts … and his birthday party clown mom

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