Are you a fan of magic acts? Heist movies? If you answered, “Yes,” this film will disappoint you. If you answered, “No,” at least you won’t be excited enough going in to be disappointed.
In spite of the best efforts of Woody Harrelson to carry the film as its comic relief, it doesn’t work. Nearly every element of the film, from the poor story to the unbelievable overuse of terrible CGI to the incomprehensibly predictable and silly dialogue is seemingly designed to make as poor a film as possible, no matter how confounding a goal that may be. It’s as if The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, USA/Germany 1995) were re-written by a teenager who had seen one too many Penn & Teller shows (I suppose in theory there is such a thing.) and watched nothing but action films in his/her life—trying to be more clever than it can be while repeating every cliché and trope it can find, all the while animating its world with CGI instead of practical action, effects, and background.
The film attempts to tell the story of a group of magicians as they perform the greatest magic trick in history, a trick from an untold source with an untold purpose. It structures itself as a series of “magic tricks,” showing us “misdirection” that appears to be our real action while what’s important happens elsewhere. But it’s not the kind of deep, well-thought-out structure that Christopher Nolan employed in The Prestige (USA/UK 2006). Instead, it’s just an excuse to hold off on showing us important details until after every scene, then show us our magicians running away gleefully, then repeat the same thing over again. It tells us that we are always being misdirected but it ends up feeling instead like Leterrier and screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt are making it up as they go along, and not doing so very elegantly, either.
Things start promisingly enough, introducing us to our main characters admittedly hamfistedly but enjoyably enough, with Woody Harrelson immediately standing out as the comic relief. However, as soon as the story actually begins, things start to go awry, as they get sent into a science fiction room of magical wonders to begin their series of tricks and then we immediately cut to a laughably CGI version of Las Vegas. Things don’t improve from there.
Visually, the film accidentally reinforces its themes of misdirection and unreality by overusing CGI to an absolutely ridiculous extent. Not only is the Las Vegas skyline fake, but so are most of the magicians’ stage effects, the film’s closing underwater shot, and countless other effects that could also be achieved practically. If you need to use CGI, it can be a great way to reduce costs without giving up completely on shots that you can’t afford, but this is a large budget film that’s using CGI rather than bothering to go to Las Vegas or even use one of the billions of stock shots that already exist of its skyline and rather than showing an actual stage magic act. CGI is its reality far more than there is any need for it to be.
Further, Leterrier and cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong are obsessed with fast-moving shots to the extent that they will not give us any static moments or even slow down. The camera is always moving full speed, circling characters or flying over a stairway to show us a lower level. It hardly even seems to care about what’s going on, it’s so busy rushing through its various movements across the screen. I can’t help but think that they were attempting to hide the amount and quality of CGI that they were using, but instead it was just a constant visual distraction that made an already confounding narrative nigh incomprehensible.
On the acting front, we have the film’s only redeeming qualities. Woody Harrelson shines as the film’s comic relief, exuding the same charming sleeze that has made him such an effective bit player for so many years. Jesse Eisenberg also plays to type as a fast-talking, high-energy, arrogant jerk of a performer. Isla Fisher is a personality-less beauty but doesn’t do anything to get in the way. Mark Ruffalo also doesn’t have much to do but performs well enough. Even Dave Franco, clearly the least heralded of the film’s stars, and Michael Caine, the one with a history of poor performances, are fine with what little they have to do. It makes it easier on the actors that they have dull, one-note characters to perform, but the fact that none of them gets in the way is still a strong point for a film that otherwise has little in its favor.
This is not a good film, but what’s really unforgivable is how easily some basic elements of the plot could have yielded something interesting. How fun could a film about magicians using their powers of trickery to fool law enforcement as they commit heists be? But Leterrier isn’t interested in telling us that story. Instead he tells a predictable and pretentious revenge story dressed up as a magic trick. In reality, the only trick he pulled was making an interesting concept disappear.
Don’t watch this film, seriously. Save yourself the 115 minutes and the aggravation. It’s a failure on almost every level.
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