Now You See Me 2 (2016)

2017 #54
Jon M. Chu | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France* / English, Mandarin & Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

Now You See Me 2

Con thrillers are much like magic tricks: they set you up to expect one thing, then reveal something else was going on all along. The major difference is that, unlike most magic tricks, con thrillers eventually show you how it was done. So whoever came up with the idea of combining those two things into a movie where magicians use their skills to pull off elaborate heists was practically a genius in my book — what a magnificent marriage of ideas! Unfortunately, the resulting films — Now You See Me and this sequel — aren’t much good at magic, routinely substituting CGI for the tricks, and they’re not great at cons either, substituting a headlong rush and a barrage of twists for a plot that hangs together. And that’s why these films are fundamentally empty: they don’t understand that the impressiveness of both magic and reveal-based narratives lies in doing it for real, not in pretending to do it.

Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed the first movie — in spite of its flaws, it was a daft bit of fun. The sequel (which misses a trick from the off by not being titled Now You Don’t) is too stupid to even manage that level of entertainment, instead devolving into a morass of nonsensicality. It’s not even that its plot has zero credibility as a plausible story — it’s the very way it’s put together as a film. Scenes feel disconnected from one another. Bits within them seem to have been snipped out. Sequences of varying scales seem to have been created from the notion of “what if we had a scene like this?” with no thought given to if it fits in the film, or even if it makes sense within itself. I’m left wondering if the movie had to be heavily trimmed for time; or did it never make any sense and this is the best they could stitch together?

The cast try to understand the plot...

Some spectacle-driven movies can drift by without too much sense, but a con movie — where a major component is the explanation — is not one of them. Indeed, Now You See Me 2 endeavours to make sense. It tells you there was a twist; a clever plan; that someone pulled the wool over someone else’s eyes. Sometimes it does even pretend to explain how they supposedly achieved that… but it doesn’t actually explain it. It tries to just sweep you along in a whirlwind of “surprise!” moments. That might be fine if you don’t care how it hangs together, but if you pause to consider who knew what when, and who plotted what and how… well, the film doesn’t want to give you a chance to think about any of that. That just contributes to my belief that, if you did stop and try to piece it all together, you’d discover it doesn’t actually make sense.

A few minor positives come from the new cast members. Lizzy Caplan is really good, a funny addition to the team, and Daniel Radcliffe entertains as the smiling villain, although thanks to the flurry of reveals he doesn’t get as much screen time as he deserves. Actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine feel like they’re phoning it in for a paycheque. Well, sometimes a movie’s worth doing if it, say, pays for a nice house, eh Michael?

Watching it doesn’t bring any such benefits, though, so don’t bother.

2 out of 5

* I had this down as a USA/UK/China/Canada co-production. IMDb now says USA/France. Other places say just USA. One of the main production companies is from Hong Kong, according to IMDb. So who the hell knows? ^

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

aka G.I. Joe: Retaliation – Extended Action Edition

2014 #1
Jon M. Chu | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12*

G.I. Joe: RetaliationThe follow-up to 2009’s Team America-esque toy adaptation G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra seemed to be better received than the first. Presumably that’s just by comparison, because this is not a good movie.

I do agree that, on the whole, it’s not as stupid… just about. I mean, it’s not unremittingly laughably bad, at least. Well, mostly — it’s full of dumb-ass plotting. Like, what are North Korea doing at a nuclear arms conference in the US? How do you use a weapon that relies on gravity in space? Would the entire world really set off all their nukes just because the US President did? And so on. At least there are a handful of good action bits, especially some physics-defying ludicrousness in the Himalayas that I truly wish was in a better film so I could see it again sometime.

Retaliation wants to have its cake and eat it by being both a sequel (character and plot points launch out of the first one) and a fresh movie for newcomers (some characters have disappeared, some are dispatched in-movie, those that survive may as well be new for all their depth). Unfortunately it doesn’t work: it feels disjointed from the first film (a stated desire to make it less sci-fi and more real-world sees to that), but there’s too much carried over for it to feel standalone.

That desire to be real-world works at times — at one point, in spite of their silly name, the Joes do seem like a real military. But the SF/F is never far away; Outré ninjasindeed, a band of outré ninjas are introduced almost as soon as our heroes, and they set off on an OTT plotline simultaneously. As the film wears on, it disappears further and further into fantasy; and not “version of our world” fantasy, but “kids’ Saturday morning cartoon” fantasy. The plot suggests the violence etc should be slightly toned down and the whole affair should have a PG, or even a U. Much like the first film, then.

The intercutting of several storylines doesn’t work. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a multi-pronged narrative, but Retaliation skips between them almost at random, sometimes mid-sequence, as if it’s restless or doesn’t know how to balance the sequences correctly. Inexperienced director? Writers? Editor(s)? It means things get thumb-twiddlingly boring as it plods through the middle act(s).

Talking of the direction, watching the Blu-ray’s making-of suggests it was executives from toy company Hasbro who were really in charge of the film. Director Jon Chu came from the Justin Bieber movie, of all things, and was a suggestion of Paramount. There’s some guff about how he showed promise or something, but I suspect the real answer is, “he was eager and would do whatever he was told”.

The Rock and Not The RockElsewhere in that making-of, the guys from Hasbro talk about how they wanted to ensure the characters were distinct, not just Generic Soldiers. Failed that, then. It’s fortunate that most of the Joes are massacred because the only stand-outs are The Rock (because he’s The Rock), Channing Tatum (because he was in the first one), and Adrianne Palicki (because she’s the only girl). Even once D.J. Cotrona’s Flint (and I had to IMDb both of those names) is one of just three Joes left, his only distinguishing features are that he’s Not The Rock and Not The Girl. He is, to use a phrase borrowed from the Hasbro guys, a Generic Soldier. “Oops.”

Retaliation isn’t as bad as The Rise of Cobra. If that sounds like damning with faint praise then, yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing. It sails as close to the 1-star breeze as a 2-star film can.

2 out of 5

G.I. Joe: Retaliation featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

* The extended cut is unrated in the US. The theatrical cut was PG-13, and I rather imagine this would be too. ^