In the first minute of "Now You See Me," Jesse Eisenberg's illusionist shares the magician mantra: "The closer you look, the less you see."
You can interpret that statement one of two ways and, perhaps upon closer (or second) inspection, "Now You See Me" might seem less impressive. Or more, as you can spot the clues that were there all along and that you dismissed or discounted in this story of magicians as Robin Hood or avengers. Small "a."
It introduces four illusionists who are brought together by a shadowy puppetmaster to execute a series of high-profile tricks that attract not only the FBI but Interpol.
3 stars = Good
Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Melanie Laurent.
PG-13 for language, some action and sexual content.
In addition to the sleight-of-hand specialist J. Daniel Atlas (Mr. Eisenberg), members of the so-called "Four Horsemen" are mentalist and hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and pickpocket Jack Wilder (Dave Franco).
The foursome's first big trick, executed from a Vegas stage, is to rob a bank in Paris. They summon an audience member, clamp a "teleportation helmet" on him and appear to send him into a vault in France where he leaves a literal calling card and the illusionists extract 3 million in euros and send the bills fluttering over the audience.
That sort of trick doesn't go unnoticed by the FBI, which assigns agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate, much to his exasperation. "I don't have time for this magic crap," he sputters. Also on the case is Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), an Interpol investigator.
Trailing along as friend or foe are billionaire businessman (Michael Caine), who becomes a benefactor, and a skeptic (Morgan Freeman) who makes a living out of debunking magic tricks. He suggests the heist -- "You're an idiot if you think they robbed a bank" -- was a stunt and a distraction with the real caper coming in their third show at an unspecified place and time.
"Now You See Me" proves what Mr. Eisenberg's character, the unofficial leader of the quartet, suggests: "First rule of magic, always be the smartest guy in the room."
By the time the smartest person is identified, you may be like one of the characters who admits, "Oh my God, I did not see that coming." That's because the screenplay by Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt is mad with misdirection although the big reveal doesn't produce goose bumps along the Keyser Soze unmasking in "The Usual Suspects."
However, director Louis Leterrier ("The Transporter," "The Incredible Hulk" with Edward Norton, "Clash of the Titans") keeps the action brisk, the camera in motion and the illusions fast and furious.
Mr. Ruffalo, who interestingly would become the best Hulk to come down the road in years, plays his FBI agent like an exasperated but fleet-footed Columbo while Mr. Eisenberg leaves behind the awkward introverts of "The Social Network" or "Adventureland" and turns his shaggy-haired illusionist into a man who's downright cocky.
The rest of the gang -- Ms. Fisher, now on screen as doomed Myrtle Wilson in "The Great Gatsby," Mr. Harrelson whose mentalist suffered a reversal of fortune and Mr. Franco as the junior member of the team -- are equally well cast. It almost goes without saying that Mr. Caine and Mr. Freeman are welcome any time, with or without Batman.
"Now You See Me" is far more sophisticated than the March comedy "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone." It seems impossible for anyone to know that the necessary puzzle pieces would so neatly fall into place here, but suspending disbelief is part of the fun ... and the magic.