What Did I Just Watch – Now You See Me 2

The other night I watched/survived an airing of Now You See Me 2, and it left such an impression on me that days later, I find myself blogging about it. It … well, it wasn’t very good. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Yeah, I’ll give a rewrite version, but we need to back up and cover some craftwork first. So that means it’s storytime.

Like a lot of kids, I thought magic was cool. Blackstone Jr, Harry Anderson, various magician tv shows of the mid-80s, they made magic special, a kind of happy thing that was interesting and well-executed. As a kid, this was really very ooh and ahh material, and I admit, I was a sucker for card tricks and sleight of hand.

As I got older, and it became cooler to dislike more things, I still watched those specials with David Copperfield and his blousy nearly Goldblum-ish shirt and holding these over-produced get-to-the-trick specials that were interesting, but I didn’t quite feel the same way. I think there was too much patter, too much preamble, and I’m fuzzy now on how the tricks were shot for television, if the camerawork was part of the gimmick or if a camera guy thought it would be a great idea to show everything from a weird angle.

Older still, I learned that magic got co-opted by the pick-up artist movement, and it was simultaneously relegated to “parlor tricks to make panties disappear” (not my quote, I heard that about a decade ago and it’s stuck around my brain) and part of the then-beta-now-cuck stuff that not-real-men do that prevents them from getting laid. Magic wasn’t ooh and ahh anymore it was a means to an end. I am ashamed that for many years I wrote it off. I wish I learned some.

This brings me to Now You See Me (the first one). It’s a heist movie with magicians. At least, that’s the premise sold via frenetically caffeinated, stylized trailers. And I watched it. I vaguely liked it. It was an enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes. In this fiction, 4 magicians each have a specialty and are brought together because nebulous reasons to ruin a corrupt wealthy guy all while the FBI does just above the possible minimum amount of effort to think about catching them.

Now here come spoilers.

Except that the FBI guy trying to catch them is in on it, and not only wants them to succeed, but also wants to introduce them to a shadowy organization of magicians who do “real” magic. (Since it’s never explained, I like to think of them as people who just have a D&D player’s guide and a lot of material components).

Now because Hollywood so often confuses sequel expansion with new idea generation, there’s naturally a Now You See Me 2, and if you thought the first movie was a stylized, under-explained, jittery, poorly written mess, you’re in luck, because they’ve doubled down on all that while expanding the world building and adding more characters (side note: I like Daniel Radcliffe as a bad guy, he should do that more often.)

A quick summary of the sequel: Because of what happened in the first movie, the magician characters are on the lam, and a new bad guy wants them to one more job or else they’ll be killed, and of course in the end, the magicians turn the magical tables on all the villains (because every villain from the first is back due to reasons) and then the shadowy organization shows back up to introduce them to “real” magic, even though that’s what you’re told was going to happen at the end of the first movie, but I guess it hasn’t yet even though the concept in the first Act is that they’ve been working with the shadowy organzation all film. I guess they never got around to showing them real magic. Dick move, shadow organization, dick move.

Let’s talk about the good stuff in the films, because there is some:

  • Actually talented actors (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Daniel Radcliffe, Mark Ruffalo) give less talented actors (James Franco’s brother, Lex Luthor/Mark Zuckerberg who isn’t Michael Cera, disposable female character, Woody “I’m just here because I get to wear a hat and something something hemp and vegan” Harrelson) plenty of opportunity to improve their craft while collecting what I imagine are lovely paychecks.
  • Occasionally you get flashes that the characters deliver dialogue that seems maybe like a person could say it, maybe.
  • The CGI for the tricks isn’t atrocious. It’s not subtle, but it’s not an affront to eyeballs.
Let’s roll out SOME of the bad, because I had to prioritize this stuff:
  • Stylized shots do not necessarily make for good shots. Framing us from the top-down and then turning the top-down into a left-right is confusing.
  • The movie thinks hyponotism involves grabbing or slapping people then talking at their faces.
  • Making one character talk immediately after another character does not underscore either of their points
  • Mark Ruffalo is the only character across two films with anything resembling a character arc, but don’t worry, it’s completely neutered in the last 10 minutes of the second movie by a photograph and Morgan Freeman dressed like a pimp from a 70s tv show.
  • The female actor changes from the first to the second movie, but again don’t worry, because in the first ten minutes of the second movie, she just says she’s the new team member and everyone agrees.
  • The magic goes from you-could-conceivably-learn-and-do-this to don’t-question-the-CGI-or-how-they-know-how-to-do-this pretty quickly
  • Don’t question when they had time to plan an orchestrate the con/heist/bad guy capture, just know they are always in on it from the very beginning and there’s no actual danger ever. EVER.
 No character arcs, no stakes to the plot, no danger to characters, unclear villain motivations … yeah sounds ripe for a rewrite.
Step 1 – We’re making 1 story, not 2. If there’s going to be a series later, that’s fine. But right now, we’re gonna take this heap of applesauce and make something better from it.
Step 2 – Everyone needs something to do that is tailored to them and that something has a reward that matters to the character.
Step 3 – Any magical elements serve the story’s plot and structure, rather than being 90 minutes where people watch CGI scenes
Step 4 – There’s actual challenge and risk in the story.
Step 5 – The world building is more than ceremonial or perfunctory.
Here we go …
The Characters:
Danny, Magician Number 1, his specialty is escapes. He’s a good kid from a good family, but he tells everyone a convoluted BS tale about foster homes and youth detention centers. He has heard about The Eye, an almost Masonic order of magicians who revere magic in its classical purest forms. He’s ambitious and sincere.
Jack, Magician Number 2, his specialty is card tricks. A street hustler, he fleeces tourists in games of three card monte. Whereas Danny talks about a bad upbringing, Jack had one, although at his core, he’s sweet, sensitive, and wants very badly to be accepted. He heard about The Eye on one of his only good memories as a child, going to a magic show and talking to the magician backstage, just after he tried to pick his pocket.
Lady, Magician Number 3, her specialty is platform and stage magic. She’s used to big crowds and middling success. She can start strong, but fails to hold attention. Instead of playing up her sex appeal outside of her stagecraft, we play up her disillusionment with magic – it’s getting boring and she’s tired of prop work. She’s been researching The Eye after noticing its iconography appear on older stage props.
Woody, Magician Number 4, his specialty is mentalism and comedy magic. A failed stand-up, he transitioned to mentalism because he was unoriginal on stage, but had a knack for reading people. He’s intuitive and empathetic, but totally skeptical that The Eye is a thing. He just wants magic to be a thing that people do.
Carl, the Villain, he’s a ruthless megalomaniac CEO, fleecing people through shell corporations for decades. He puts on a facade for the cameras, that he’s altruistic, charming, and friendly, but in reality he’s willing to kill to get ahead. Flipping that switch is creepy and never played for laughs. He’s a monster in a TV-personality costume. He’s currently stockpiling medications for cancer and AIDS so he can jack up the prices.
Ruffalo, the Cop/Fed, the agent/detective who gets assigned to Carl’s protection detail. He encounters the magicians and tries to stop them. He’s not in on it. He’s not stupid, this is never played as comedy relief, he’s at best a secondary antagonist.

Our film starts with Danny, in breathless voiceover, “You need to tie me up tighter than that.” We open on him on stage, an Elks lodge, a room trapped in the 1970s with men and cigar smoke to match. They’re unimpressed and barely paying attention. It’s a mostly silent crowd as Danny moves through his routine, finally disappearing behind a curtain and reappearing with the ropes tied in balloon animal shapes. Crickets, no one applauds. We cut to Danny loading his beat up car and snatching the envelope of cash out of a drunk Elk’s hand. It starts to rain, and the car stalls. The sound of rain hitting the pavement intensifies, and we cut to …

Jack, running. We see his legs churning, we see him navigating busy streets of pedestrians and cars pulling out of alleys and side streets. He’s running from the cops, a large smile on his face. He loses two of the cop pursuers and takes a seat in a grubby pizzeria counting his large stack of twenties and tens. It’s a good take. Just when he’s about caught his breath, he looks out the window and sees two more cops heading his way. Time to run again. He starts saying “Oh shi…” and we cut to…

Lady, saying “It’s not everyday you see a woman saw herself in half is it?” She’s in her pajamas, rehearsing her act in her apartment. She narrates each part of the trick: stand here, move arm up, no higher, turn, tap box, catching herself in the mirror time and again to correct her posture. She’s trying really hard. Over her shoulder and out of focus we see a table littered with sketches and plans and models of different set pieces. There’s a dressmaker’s dummy with a half-finished outfit pinned up. Over time, Lady grows dissatisfied with her rehearsals, and flops down on the couch (which a few seconds ago doubled as her stage) to watch TV. She channel surfs before catching an interview and we cut to …

Woody, on set, making Jimmy Fallon or some other easily amused jabroni in a suit laugh. There are two people flanking the host’s desk and Woody is making snap deductions about them, before running them through a simple card trick that gets enormous applause. We track him back post-interview to the green room, where he loots the craft services table and then ducks out quickly. The rear stage door opens and when a famous celebrity gets mobbed, he slips through unnoticed. He walks in the rain, collar upturned, out of frame.

Back to Danny, who’s unloading his car into a garage, his mother’s. She’s standing there, watching him lug case after case, and they’re talking about how it went. Danny is upset because no one appreciated the work he put in, and his mom mentions that at least the paycheck was good. Danny opens the envelope to find out he’s been somewhat stiffed – he was expecting twenties and got ones. His mother consoles him and Danny heads up to bed. 

His room is a trove of magic glory. Posters of stage acts (and this is where set design can create all new acts not just Copperfield, Penn and Teller, Houdini) and line the walls, and his bookcase is a library of autobiographies and how-tos. He flops down on the bed, sighing. his mother passes by the door saying she’s going to bed, he says good night, then goes to bed himself.

We cut to the next morning. Jack is at it again, setting up his monte stand at the entrance to a city park. He’s drawn a large crowd, with Danny, Lady, and Woody making their way into it, staggered among the rows. Danny pushes his way to the front to become the mark. Jack starts his patter, and Lady yells from four rows back whichever answer is correct. Danny yells back that he knows, which flusters Jack, who resorts to palming cards and deliberately cheating, but only in a way that another magician would know. Danny catches onto this, and ends up cleaning out Jack’s wallet. He breaks away from the game, several hundred dollars richer. Except that to break away from the game, he’s gotta pass back through the crowd, and this gives us a chance to watch each of our four musicians bump, sneak, and lift the wallet. Ultimately, it ends up being dropped and picked up by Ruffalo, who breaks up the monte game and arrests Jack. 

Feeling bad his bilking, Danny sets about freeing Jack, and enlists Lady and Woody to join him. They spring Jack, but not before Jack swipes a folder off Ruffalo’s desk, and overhears something about Carl being a bad guy with a lot of money. 

The wheels are then in motion for the four magicians to collaborate on a heist of Carl. They begin with surveillance, and by combining Woody’s mesmerism and Jack’s natural charm, they get a quick tour of the “civilian” levels (let’s also give Jack a phone number or two). Danny tries his hand, and gets a few floors higher, but ultimately falls short of the prize as well. Lady gets all the way to inner office’s front door, but is stopped by a variety of countermeasures.

The result is that the team must rely on al their talents: escapes, card tricks, platform magic, and mesmerism to breach the inner office, only to find that the best “loot” is a few vague memos explaining pricing policy. However, this celebration is short-lived because just as the team goes to make their escape, in walks Carl to catch them. Cue Ruffalo’s return, and all four magicians in handcuffs. 

At least until mid0interrigation, Danny escapes, Jack palms the key, Woody convinces the officer to let him go, and Lady disappears behind a table only to re-emerge several feet away, locking Ruffalo in his own interrogation room. This commits Ruffalo to catching them, but also plants the seed that these four magicians have an interest in doing something about Carl. 

Danny spends his time at home, rehearsing the same tricks that they used in the Carl heist when his mother starts coughing. Turns out mom has been hiding an illness, and now the meds are too expensive. This clicks things into place, and Danny calls the magicians to finish what they started. 

Which they’d do, if Carl hadn’t counted on them coming back, and ratcheted up security. Not just Ruffalo, but greater countermeasures and more armed guards. The office is a fortress. The team aborts one attempt and is nearly caught by Ruffalo. They console themselves and Lady makes a passing comment that Danny would have done better if he hypnotized the guard. Jack tells Lady she’d have done better if she had palmed the keys. And that’s when they realize they need to learn each other’s craft to have a better chance. 

So they practice. On the street, in broad daylight and in their individual gigs. Think of it like a protracted montage. It starts off shaky, but they all start showing proficiency in other magical aptitudes. Excited to share this news, they reconvene and that’s when we all learn they have a shared interest in The Eye. 

Feeling well armed and unified, they go after Carl. And after several near-misses, they pull off the job, and get into the office, finding Carl’s documents saying he’s been adjusting prices and withholding medications. Except Carl was counting on them getting that far, and holds them at gun point. Ruffalo arrives and hears everyone out, which leads to Carl getting impatient and Ruffalo revealing that he’s been recording the story the whole time, because breaking and entering is bad, but it’s not tampering with people’s health kind of bad. Carl takes a shot at Ruffalo, who fires back. Ruffalo makes the arrest of the wounded Carl, and goes to thank the the magicians, only to find them all absent – they disappeared. 

One week later (we’re told by the graphics department), the magicians are casually chatting when Ruffalo pulls up on them. They get suspicious and nervous but he thanks them and hands them a stack of cold case files, all rich business types thought to be hurting the little guy, but nothing could be proven, and maybe they had some magic to spare. The foursome agrees, and just before we go to credits, Danny’s phone rings. He gets a single image as a text message, that of an address and a blinking eye. 

Okay, I think this quick rewrite works. It’s not perfect, I bet I could ratchet up the tension, but this post is already running long. Thanks for checking out my little patch job on a movie that so annoyed me I had to write myself angry notes on my phone until this blogpost came together.

 

Happy creating.

Posted by johnadamus

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