For every nitpicker who found fault with “Now You See Me,” and there were plenty of you, there were probably two more viewers who just didn’t give a hoot that the 2013 magic-themed thriller made no sense whatsoever.
The flashy yet confounding sleight of hand, plot and camera that were on display - along with rollicking performances by a cast that included Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo and Mlanie Laurent - made the film a hit at the box office, if not with critics. (Rotten Tomatoes’ elite reviewers gave the film a score of 26 percent, while 70 percent of audiences liked it.)
Predictably, the story of four Robin Hood-like prestidigitators who use elaborate tricks to expose corruption spawned a sequel, with twice as much of what the hoi polloi loved and the haters hated. “Now You See Me 2” is bigger, brasher, more unabashed and, if possible, even more headache-inducing - at least for anyone who expects a movie to answer half of the questions it raises. Although a few of the film’s secrets are revealed, as in the first film, many more are not.
Not in ways that pass close scrutiny, at any rate.
One scene from the trailer, for instance, in which Eisenberg’s pretentiously named magician J. Daniel Atlas appears to make raindrops hover in mid-air - and then float upward - is explained as the effect of a rain machine and strobe lights. Fair enough. The levitating-water illusion is so common you can buy one on the internet. But when Danny, as he is called, proceeds to disappear into the wet pavement, leaving behind only a heap of soggy clothing, there is no explanation.
Never mind that magician Criss Angel performed similar head-scratching feats on his old “Mindfreak” show. Or that this kind of thing is just another day at the office for showman David Copperfield, who is a co-producer on the film. Like knives from a knife thrower, there are so many similar illusions flung at you in “NYSM2” - several of which seem to rely on camera and editing cheats as much as magical stagecraft - that the razzle-dazzle quickly can become painful.
Observing magic in the flesh is one thing. But watching a movie, which is its own kind of wizardry, shouldn’t feel like the wool is being pulled over your eyes.
Set 18 months after the events of the first film, “NYSM2” opens with Danny and his fellow Horsemen, as the altruistic magicians are known, in hiding. In an exposition that is almost too briskly efficient, we learn that Lizzy Caplan, as Lula, has replaced Isla Fisher as “the girl Horseman,” to use her refreshingly self-aware phrase, joining Harrelson’s mentalist Merritt and Dave Franco’s “cardistry” expert Jack. Their mentor, Dylan (Ruffalo), a magician who is masquerading as an F.B.I. agent, acts as their liaison to the secret magic society known as the Eye, from which they take their marching orders.
When the group is abducted by a nefarious tech entrepreneur (Daniel Radcliffe) in order to steal a computer chip capable of accessing any computer in the world, the setup is in place for a twisty, “Ocean’s Eleven”-style romp. “I’m having fun, even if you’re not,” says Radcliffe’s Walter, a sociopathic Steve Jobs in a white suit. The sequence in which the Horsemen are spirited away - after jumping off a rooftop in Manhattan into a plastic construction tube and coming out the other end in Macau, China - is one of the film’s unmitigated delights, even if the subsequent revelation of the mechanism behind it is not entirely credible.
Another showstopping sequence involves a playing card being palmed, thrown and moved through clothing in ways that defy both physics and credulity. Danny’s shopping list for that scene includes a “Kepplinger holdout” (a mechanical device that pulls a card out of your hand and up your sleeve) and “roughing fluid” (used to make cards sticky). Such esoteric touches make the magic seem authentic, but how is it that security guards don’t find the holdout when they are patting Danny down?
Hypnosis, in both films, is central to justifying an absurd array of improbable behaviors here (well beyond barking like a dog). The film presents alpha-wave trances as occurring with the speed and ease of a finger snap. Without them, the movie falls apart, like a house of cards.
Notwithstanding these serious flaws, the film is, at times, almost sinfully fun, assuming you have a taste for self-indulgently logic-free hedonism. Directed by Jon M. Chu - known for two “Step Up” films, a Justin Bieber concert documentary and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” - the movie is all eye candy: tasty and stimulating, but not very good for you.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a little escapism. But too often “NYSM2” gets tangled in its straitjacket of a plot, leaving the movie twisting in the wind, upside down.
It doesn’t care. To paraphrase Walter, the movie is having fun, even if you’re not.
Now You See Me 2
Rated: PG-13 for violence, some language. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson. Director: Jon M. Chu. Running time: 129 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.