Outside of Vancouver there's an attraction based around this old bridge over a scenic gorge, and what now surrounds it (and allows them to charge theme-park prices) is this completely man-made "nature walk" with all different, human-created "natural environments" that you walk through and pretend to be in nature, and try to work up a sense of wonder at nature, while what you're seeing is a prefab completely manicured creation. I was thinking of that after seeing this movie, in which we're supposed to pretend to be amazed by magic tricks that have been accomplished through CGI and film sleight-of-hand, and involved in a mystery that we know is just a construction of claptrap that can't be solved until it's time for it to be.
We open by introducing our characters, Jesse Eisengerg as Daniel, general magician, who tells us "the closer you look, the less you'll see," which the film takes as its mantra. There's also Woody Harrelson as Merritt, mentalist (fancy name for 'hypnotist,' apparently) and Isla Fisher as Henley, Daniel's former assistant who has stepped out into fame on her own, and Dave Franco (James' brother) as Jack, pickpocket and lock-picker. They each get cards that draw them to a room, where they soon view a bunch of blueprints and are enchanted. One year later, they are a Vegas-commanding hit ensemble The Four Horsemen, and conduct an opening show in which they seemingly transport a man into a bank vault in France, where they send millions in Euros back to their audience in Vegas. Watching the show are their benefactor, Michael Caine as Tressler, and Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bradley, who has a TV show in which he debunks magicians. After the opening crime, they attract the attention of FBI agent Mark Ruffalo as Billy, and a lovely Interpol agent, by which time I had stopped writing down names.
Billy hires Thaddeus to consult on debunking the group, and here we get an explanation of how they accomplished the heist, which, as another critic says "becomes more unbelievable the more it's explained," and involves stealing three million in Euros and burning three million in Euros, for a total of six million. This is after Daniel has simultaneously gotten out of handcuffs and launched them onto Billy's wrists, hidden the key inside a closed soda can, and switched a smartphone with another. So there's that man-made "nature walk" feeling... are we supposed to just pretend that this is possible? Pretty much, if you want to get any enjoyment here.
In here is dropped the information that Thaddeus debunked a famous magician who was thus ruined and disappeared... something that will prick up the ears of anyone who has seen a movie before. The amusement is supposed to come in the form of seeing the clever magicians constantly outwitting the short-tempered Billy, who remains several steps behind as he tries to corner them. For their second act (we are to believe that their massively elaborate Vegas show was a one-time event) they rob Tressler, their benefactor, and transfer his millions into the accounts of all audience members. Then we are to believe that they really robbed him, and ruined him, although up til now it has seemed that he is their mastermind. No, actually, we find out (way too late) that they don't know who their mastermind is, or what his or her plan is. Then Tressler hires Thaddeus to debunk the group, for ten million dollars, while you're like: "I thought you were penniless and ruined?" Just watch, don't ask. After this Michael Caine vanishes from the film without a trace.
After the second show there is a lengthy chase scene through New Orleans and this is really where the movie's main issue became apparent to me, as I felt: "Why should I get engaged here when we know the protagonists will be way ahead of the FBI and this is all just kind of stringing me along?" It's just extremely thin content frothed up to fill out time, but there's zero real suspense or involvement because it's such a construct. And it can't help but distance one further as you realize that the filmmakers don't seem to get that this is a central problem.
SPOILERS > > >
So after this there's more suspicion, accusations, sleight-of-hand, and we find that being a safe cracker is also compatible with extensive martial arts combat training and extreme Manhattan driving. After a long physical fight (not bad, though) and LONG car chase, Jack is killed in a fiery crash. But the movie gives away that he is still alive (you saw we're in spoilers, right?) by having the characters not react to his death at all. Which makes narrative sense (they know he's alive) but hurts audience involvement because WE don't know it. In here we find that there is some mystical order or magicians called The Eye that all of our heroes are trying to get into, and they don't know who they're working for, and don't know what their fates will be. There's a lot of buildup to their final show, and FBI attempts to prevent any crime. As a show, however, the final one is a bit of a bust (and most marred by CGI), and only sets up the final twist.
This paragraph reveals the very ending! Thaddeus (who seems to be able to take long hiatuses between filming his weekly show) finds all the money the group has stolen in his car. The FBI finds him and imprisons him. Then it is revealed that... the mysterious mastermind behind the whole trio is actually Billy (Ruffalo), FBI agent seemingly being blocked at every turn. He is the child of the magician who Thaddeus ruined with his show (wow, long-running show, huh?), and also got revenge on Tressler and... someone else whom I've forgotten already. What is supposed to be an ingenious triple-revenge conducted across decades falls flat because it is simply too confusing. The quartet of magicians get to join The Eye, and will apparently go on to fight crimes and right wrongs if this thing generates enough to have a sequel, and Billy gets the love of the Interpol agent of his dreams despite being an international criminal.
< < < SPOILERS END
It was amusing to the degree that you allow yourself to be taken in, do not question, and just go with it. I was hoping it would tie itself with some ingenious idea that brought it all together and made sense of everything, but nope. It also doesn't stand up to the least little bit of scrutiny afterward, with large parts of its structure falling down with the slightest poke. A good comparison is to The Prestige, which is interesting throughout and follows its logic to the very end, at which point you can reexamine it and it still makes sense. I would say you can just enjoy it in the moment, without thinking too much, but as I said, during that chase scene I was overcome by a sense of "if all this is going to turn out to be phony, why should I get involved?"
Still, it's always fun to watch smart people have one or three or twelve over on less smart people, and this movie tries to catch you up in the sense of fun of that, watching our magicians run rings around law enforcement at every turn. They may be entirely phony rings, set up only so that we can watch them succeed, and that is why this thing can only be so much fun. But still, some fun is often better than no fun.
If you like magician and heist movies and don't ask a whole lot of questions.