The loss of the novelty effect, that deliriously exciting sense of discovering something new and different, is the Achilles heels of any sequel.
And it is a rare sequel indeed that manages to keep this spirit of newness alive while advancing the storyline in ways that honour the original without slavishly paying homage to it.
Now You See Me 2, directed by John M. Chu, is not one of those movies.
While it goes through the motions of bring us the dazzling magical illusions and witty repartee that defined the first film, Now You See Me, and is a reasonably enjoyable, well-crafted film, it fails to engender any of the gasp-inducing charm and larger-than-life fun of its predecessor.
This is not for want of trying.
The screenplay by Ed Solomon enthusiastically throws everything into the narrative mix – the Four Horsemen, the self-styled greatest magicians on the planet, are back sans Isla Fisher’s character who has been replaced by a cocky, hilariously quipping Lizzy Caplan, the tricks are epic and in the final act take the entire city of London as their backdrop, and the jokes and asides come almost as thick and fast as the tricks and sleights-of-hand themselves.
So boxes are ticked, and well-used as far as they go.
The problem lies with the fact that it feels like all the pieces have been reassembled, but not in the same pleasing way as the first film; much like a jigsaw puzzle where one piece has been strong-armed into the wrong position, Now You See Me 2 limps along, despite its often frenetic pace, looking for all the world like the magical film that preceded it but without the flow or genuine sense of geewhiz fun that percolated every moment.
The sense of all the pieces being present in a way that doesn’t add up to a magically-pleasing whole is most apparent with the Four Horsemen themselves.
Jesse Eisenberg returns as the brilliantly ambitious Danny Atlas, Woody Harrelson as the jocular hypnotist Merritt McKinney (while also pulling double duty as his flippantly-aggrieved twin brother) and Dave Franco as slick, handsome playing card illusionist Jack Wilder (who is very much alive despite faking his death), and as noted, Kaplan steps in cocky magician Lula who supplies an endless, and at times, all too many whipcracking quips that threaten to wear out their welcome on more than one occasion.
Revered as the Robin Hoods of magic, the Four Horsemen have spent a frustrating year in hiding, waiting for the magical collective The Eye, the conduit for whom is double FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who spends much of the first part of the film trying to put his employer off the scent of the fugitive illusionists who maintain a heady groundswell of public support.
They are, however, none too popular with the man they took millions of dollars off in the first film, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), whose son Walter (Daniel Radcliffe), all cheeky, menacing attitude and designer clothes, is intent in wreaking vengeance on his dad’s behalf.
Throw in daddy issues for Rhodes, whose father was a magician and died performing an escape trick in 1984, for which he has always blamed sceptic Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), two grand locations in Macau and London and you have an awful lot going on, all of which should mean a movie that hurtles along at breakneck speed with a whole of meaningful character moments.
What you get however is a film that speeds up and slows down, that leaves its larger-than-life central protagonists looking like ineffective fools for much of the time; your expectation that they will rebound spectacularly is thwarted at every turn, save for the final act when they emerge with their customary awe-inducing city-bestriding acts, all of which are underpinned by illusions aplenty.
Unfortunately, quite apart from leaching away one of the things that made the first film such a joy – four gleefully-confident magicians at the top of their game besting everyone around them while delivering truth and justice to the masses – this whole humbling of the Four Horsemen takes away much of the charm and energy of Now You See Me 2.
Even the final big reveal feels underwhelming, full of explanations that don’t seem all that impressive and almost reek of trying to ape the first film’s trickery.
But where Now You See Me sustained the grand illusions throughout the entire film, meaning that reveal was as epic as the acts themselves, its sequel is far more small scale in nature, feeling parochial and unimaginative, despite the booming multicultural soundtrack and the in-movie media hype.
It’s enjoyable yes and hardly a dismal failure, and if you’re content to focus on its constituent parts – the tricks are fun as far as they go, and the dialogue and professional intimacy between the Four Horsemen is often hilariously self-knowing – then you’ll have a fine old time.
But if you’re expecting the sheer immersive bravura of the first film, the geewhiz, golly gee how the hell did they do that vibe, then you’ll be disappointed.
Now You See Me 2 has the look and feel and tropes of its 2013 predecessor, and functions as a perfectly adequate follow-up.
But when the first film in the franchise was so outstandingly spectacular, all-engrossing and stupendously awe-inspiring, surely simply being adequately enjoyable is not really enough.