Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) leads a team of master magicians known as the Four Horsemen who have a grand and larcenous plan in 'Now You See Me.' (Barry Wetcher / Summit Entertainment via AP)
Magic is all about misdirection — the magician wants you to focus on the meaningless motions of his left hand while his right hand is busy setting up his next amazing trick.
As Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) succinctly puts it in the wickedly clever “Now You See Me”: “The more you think you see, the easier it will be to fool you. … The closer you look, the less you see.”
The movie itself practices what Danny preaches. It’s a big, loud, fast, high-energy wave of misdirection that never slows down enough for you to ponder its plot holes — and it has more than a few. You won’t care; with a great cast, stylishly outlandish swagger and a late-inning payoff that would make Penn and Teller proud, it’s a giddy rush.
Danny is one of a quartet of B-level prestidigitators who are introduced, “Ocean’s Eleven” style, in the opening scenes.
The others are Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), a “mentalist” who can hypnotize people; Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, younger brother of James), who uses simple magic tricks as a setup to pick pockets; and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Danny’s former assistant, who does Houdini-esque escape stunts.
Out of the blue, each gets an anonymous invitation to a New York loft at a specific date and time. Upon arriving, they find the space empty except for a holographic projector that displays ... blueprints.
Flash forward a year, and they’ve teamed up to hit the big time as the “Four Horsemen,” bankrolled by wealthy benefactor Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine).
They engineer a seemingly impossible trick: robbing a bank in Paris of 3 million euros while onstage in Las Vegas.
When it’s learned the French bank has really been robbed, scruffy FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is assigned the case, reluctantly teamed with gorgeous Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”).
With no evidence of the Horsemen’s involvement, Rhodes must let them go. But he stays on their trail as they prep for their next stunt in New Orleans, which they vow will be even more spectacular.
The story takes wing as the quartet pursues its multifaceted master plan, the true purpose of which doesn’t come into full focus until the last few minutes.
Meanwhile, Rhodes and Dray futilely pursue the Horsemen, and they’re all pursued by high-profile magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who’s working his own agenda.
There’s a lot to savor. The New Orleans stunt is mind-bending. Rhodes and Wilder have a frenetic fistfight in a cramped apartment that’s enough to cause whiplash. And it’s beyond sublime to watch Freeman and Caine, two of the best actors ever, go at each other in a couple of scenes.
But all that pales in comparison to a twist ending that you’ll never see coming, a left-field haymaker that sent an amazed “aaaahhhh” of delight rippling through the packed house at my screening. The closer you look, the less you see … indeed.
The illusion wears thin in spots afterward if you think too hard or too long about what you’ve seen. But “Now You See Me” is a high-spirited, entertaining dash of hocus-pocus.
Rated PG-13 for language and some intense action scenes. Got a rant or rave about the movies? Email firstname.lastname@example.org .