Western literature has a long history of heist stories and “rob from the rich, give to the poor” legends. From classic fairy tales involving sneaking into witches’ castles, to the original Robin Hood; from the 1969 “Italian Job,” which ended on a literal cliffhanger, to the modern “Ocean’s Eleven,” in which thieves steal from thieves. . . . We love an intricate tale of cleverness, plots, sneaking, mystery, and the triumph of the little guy.
The new movie “Now You See Me” incorporates the classic heist story with the classic Robin Hood story with the classic revenge story and adds in the classic detective story with the classic concealed-identity story—all wrapped around the classic magic show, with a soupçon of romance and a slightly unsuccessful attempt at the classic rivals-turned-buddies story. It’s a lot to try to put into one movie, but for the most part it succeeds and is always wildly entertaining.
Four rivals who have become compatriots (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, and Woody Harrelson) use grand magic shows to misdirect the attention of the FBI from their real scheme of breaking into vaults, bank accounts, and safes. They’re attempting to get some kind of revenge for a leader whose identity they are unaware of, while an FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) and an Interpol agent (Mélanie Laurent) follow the clues to stop their final heist, and a magic-debunker (Morgan Freeman) tries to reveal not only how they’re doing it but what they’re going to do next.
The magic is spectacular. The team tricks an innocent man and a massive audience into believing he’s been teleported across the globe into his bank’s secure vault. They also trick the FBI into hunting down a safe full of balloon animals. The thefts are spectacular, every one an enlargement of a classic magic act. All the way through, the magic is neatly explained by the magic-debunker the same way a murder mystery is explained at the end by the detective, a useful device to keep the audience (us) up to speed.
The fights and car chases are spectacular as well, and they all incorporate magic, from one man attacking another with playing cards to a classic predicament escape act in the middle of a high-action sequence. The film moves rapidly with the professional patter of a magician, keeping you guessing until the last moment. How did they do it? Why did they do it? Who is their mysterious leader? Is it him? Is it her? How much of it is real and how much sleight of hand?
But one place I think “Now You See Me” fails to be truly spectacular is in its depiction of the magicians themselves. It promises a story of four rather annoying, quarreling rivals who become a tightly knit team to pull off an epic heist. Yet about a quarter of the way through, it shears off to become the story of the frustrations of a skeptical FBI agent who’s chasing them with his insightful and intelligent French Interpol partner. By the end of the movie, the four magicians are a team, but we don’t get to see it happen. We only see that it did happen. Because of that, we don’t get to develop much affection for the four of them. One is a jerk, one intrusive, one overly defensive, and one a nearly ignored newbie, and together they antagonize the agent, for whom we do develop an affection. By the end, that affection pays off, but our lack of identification with the magicians doesn’t. It’s possible that this was intentional, because much of the character development plays into the massive magic act that the whole movie is, but I don’t think it was done well.
What is done well is the mystery-story aspect of the plot, the classic whodunit. Who put the four magicians up to their tricks? As in any mystery story, it has to be one of the major characters introduced over the course of the story, and it can be any one of them, from the narrator to the victim to one of the stooges. All along you’re led to exclaim to yourself, “Aha! It has to be him!” only to turn around three minutes later and think, “No, it can’t be him. What if it’s her?” I have to say that the person I thought it was from the very beginning of the movie ended up being the person it really was, but only after I had ruled that character out (several times).
So in many respects, “Now You See Me” is a highly enjoyable heist movie. But that still leaves one major question unanswered: What do we actually believe about the morality of a heist movie?
The essence of a heist story is that the thieves get away with it, and that we want them to. Yet we Christians believe in truth, honesty, and justice. What’s truthful, honest, or just about thieves stealing, just because they’re doing it in a clever manner? But what about when they’re stealing from other thieves, institutional thieves like a particular insurance company that ruins people, or when they frame someone who’s guiltless of the crime but guilty of another, or when they’re giving their ill-gotten gains to the poor and innocent? When the law fails to enact justice, is it all right for a group of renegades to take it on themselves? How do we know whether it’s justice or revenge?
In that sense, “Now You See Me” is morally ambiguous. For that matter, so is every other heist story we’ve come to love. (Hansel and Gretel, anyone? Eating an old woman’s house, and then shoving her in an oven and calling it legitimate because she tried to kill them?) When is the heist a fight against injustice, and when is it a continued perpetration of injustice? Does it become right when government agents do it but wrong when professional thieves do it? And is it legitimate to let the government be the final arbiter of what is truly justice?
“Now You See Me” doesn’t justify itself quite as well as some other heist stories do, like the TV series “Leverage” or the many versions of Robin Hood. It’s every Christian’s duty, therefore, to examine for himself or herself whether it’s harmless entertainment or an encouragement to step back from truth. I must confess I’m not entirely sure in this case. All I know for certain is this: I love heist stories. And there are enough people who feel the same way to ensure that the genre will remain popular for a long, long time.
Christy McDougall is a Web developer, writer, and aspiring missionary with bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian theology.
Image copyright Summit Entertainment.
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