'Now You See Me' lacks magical touch

Now You See Me, a heist movie revolving around a quartet of magicians, has flash and zest. There’s an exciting chase sequence, too, on foot and in vehicles, in New York City.

There’s also much huffing and puffing over magic tricks and stunts that aren’t so thrilling or enchanting. Now You See Me further suffers from a convoluted story in which pieces don’t fit and dots don’t connect.

Yet the movie’s filmmakers assume it’s so good that it deserves to be the first installment of a new movie franchise. In reality, the self-congratulating Now You See Me doesn’t earn the sequel its ending so strongly suggests will come.

Jesse Eisenberg, doing the same insufferably smug performance he did in The Social Network, the likewise in wise-guy mode Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco are the movie’s magicians, aka the Four Horsemen.

Harrelson and Franco are little more than thieves and con men. Fisher stars in an old Houdini-style water tank escape act. Eisenberg does high-tech card tricks. With the exception of Fisher, the Horsemen are thoroughly unlikable.

Now You See Me tries to tell a breezy, multi-character story of the kind Steven Soderbergh pulled off so skillfully in his Ocean’s Eleven series. But it’s tricky to mount a movie with so many characters and have it go smoothly.

Now You See Me’s crowded ensemble cast also features Mark Ruffalo as a grouchy FBI agent and a serene Mélanie Laurent as an Interpol agent who joins him in an investigation following a bank robbery in Paris. Stereotypically, and even though she’s a French beauty, Ruffalo complains about having to work with a new partner. Of course, his complaints evaporate after he falls in love with her.

Now You See Me’s New Orleans-shot scenes provide another example of director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Clash Of The Titans) and screenwriter Boaz Yakin’s lack of imagination and adherence to cliché. The Four Horseman stage one of their big shows at a Canal Street theater, specifically The State Palace, on Mardi Gras day. There’s also a chase sequence that includes Bourbon Street.

Now You See Me’s New Orleans scenes are its weakest, but the movie’s MGM Grand scene in Las Vegas, despite an audience of 5,000, isn’t much better.

Veteran thespian Michael Caine figures prominently in the Las Vegas and New Orleans sequences as a billionaire businessman who sponsors the Four Horsemen’s performances. A battle of titans ensues with Caine on one side and Morgan Freeman, playing a celebrated debunker of magicians, on the other. The rivalry between the two is just as poorly defined as the rest of the movie.

Now You See Me makes much about the Four Horsemen’s supposed gift for misdirection. But the entire film is a bait and switch enterprise. When the movie finally unveils its third-act revelations, they’re nowhere as near as dazzling or surprising as the filmmakers apparently deceived themselves into thinking they are. The movie rings so falsely that the filmmakers, as well the magicians in their movie, all come off as charlatans.