The expert magicians who make up the Four Horsemen drop the Robin Hood act for the sake of self-preservation in this sequel to the 2013 hit. Now You See Me 2, a movie focused on illusionists and sleight-of-hand artists, looks to make a name for itself in the same manner as any good magician: It creates arresting images in order to distract us from the trickery that makes the whole act work. The quartet (which now includes Lizzy Caplan, replacing Isla Fisher from the previous film) must once again deal with magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who is now plotting against the team from jail after they framed him for a robbery he didn't commit; however, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), an ally of the Horsemen, decides to deal with him by springing him from his cell. Meanwhile, the foursome are horrified when a seemingly triumphant return gig that's meant to expose a white-collar criminal is sabotaged. The incident introduces them to tech entrepreneur Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), who threatens to have his henchmen kill the crew unless they steal a highly valuable computer chip for him. And the wealthy, nefarious Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), who lost millions thanks to a Horseman trick in the last film, is still on their trail and eager for vengeance, as is the twin brother of team member Merritt McKinney (both brothers are played by Woody Harrelson), who has a less-than-cordial relationship with his sibling.
The actors who portray the central protagonists fire on all cylinders, elevating this boilerplate material in the process. Jesse Eisenberg serves as the group's smarmy, smug, yet somehow charming leader, who is able to get viewers invested in his whiz-kid-gets-his-comeuppance arc. Caplan is perhaps the most dynamic performer in the entire film, playing against type as an offbeat goofball with a sharp wit that comes out when she's tested (her wisecracks provide some of the funniest moments). Dave Franco is quietly becoming a slyly funny and versatile leading man. And there may be no safer bet in Hollywood at this point than casting Woody Harrelson as the member of an ensemble. Able to play central characters (The Messenger), comic relief (Zombieland), or even the face of pure evil (Out of the Furnace), Harrelson manages here to pull off the feat of bringing to life both Merritt and his ball-busting twin -- a dual role that, had it been essayed by someone without his sense of humor and acting chops, could have torpedoed the whole movie.
Unfortunately, the plot contains several developments that come off as too trite or half-baked for a film about exposing the planning behind seemingly unexplainable feats, which means that viewers who aren't already enthralled by the art of magic will probably feel cheated. Much of the problem stems from the way the movie handles its ancillary characters. Ruffalo does his best, but he's undermined by a clunky screenplay that doesn't do justice to his character, who's supposed to be the emotional center of the story. New additions Radcliffe and Jay Chou (the latter portrays an employee at an upscale, well-respected shop for magicians) are given short shrift, as both men seem like they're playing plot devices rather than three-dimensional human beings. And Michael Caine's role as a one-note antagonist is such a slog that it's a wonder director Jon M. Chu didn't just replace him with a CGI beast, or at least give him a fake mustache to twirl.
The movie as a whole doesn't satisfy as anything beyond surface-level flash; it's visually appealing, but too kitschy and airless to make any lasting impact. Like most magic shows, this film depends on the audience's investment in the spectacle: Viewers who are just looking for a good time and some well-executed tricks will be entertained, but those seeking more substantial fare will likely end up feeling slightly duped.