‘Tonight, I really am a witch…’
A sequel that will hopefully disappear into thin air
After being persuaded (read: forced!) by my friend Sam to watch ‘Now You See Me’ I was pleasantly surprised – the cast were charismatic enough, the tricks they pulled off were entertaining and, aside from a plot twist that made no sense whatsoever, it was a nice slice of fantasy entertainment. 24 hours later, after coming out of its sequel, I felt no such positivity. ‘Now You See Me: The Second Act’ is bland, boring and blithely bloated. You come out of the cinema not feeling fooled or tricked – but scammed for giving up 129 minutes of your life for such maddening rubbish.
One year on since they outwitted the FBI and the Four Horsemen have become Three – J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) , Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) – as the ‘lady horseman’ grew tired of waiting around for further instructions from the Eye. Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is still working at the FBI, doing all he can to keep the Horsemen in hiding and under the radar. He sets the Horsemen a new mission to hijack the launch party of a new software, inviting Lula (Lizzy Caplan) to join them. The mission gets hijacked by Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) who kidnaps the Horseman and forces them to use their skills to go steal a data-mining device. Dylan has no idea where the Horseman are so breaks Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) to help find them. What are the chances that vengeance-seeking Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) may be involved somehow?
Writing the above paragraph was exceptionally difficult in the attempt to avoid being convoluted as that is what the film is – a far too convoluted series of ‘tricks’ that make no sense whatsoever. Whereas the first film was fun and flashy this one gets bogged down by attempts at pathos. Much of the plot is devoted to Ruffalo’s character mourning the death of his magician father 30 years on. This wouldn’t be so bad a plot point were it not for the fact that Dylan is not a likeable enough character for the plot to hinge on and the fact it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s also an overwhelming sense when watching these sequences that the filmmakers are hoping for a third movie with a seemingly impossible reunion.
If magic is entertaining the masses with the impossible this film is the opposite – entertaining no one with the improbable. Very rarely does the story actually make sense – with the twists, trickery and questionable character motivations trying so hard to be clever they end up failing. That’s also true of some of the dialogue which regularly made no sense whatsoever. Ordinarily I’d then quote of one these lines as evidence but they must have been that ridiculous that my frontal lobe totally rejected storing them for future reference.
These crimes against cinema would be somewhat forgivable if the characters were likeable or the cast were enjoyable to watch. Sadly that is not a saving grace here. My disdain for characters played by Jesse Eisenberg continues, Dave Franco is unbearably vanilla and Radcliffe is supremely irritating. Harrelson would be the film’s saving grace were it not for the fact he ends up playing a dual role as the evil twin brother of his character. He’s so stereotypically camp that it’s offensive, his costume horrendously cheap and played so hammily you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing. Lizzy Caplan is a welcome addition – as she is to everything she stars in – yet is still stuck in a one-dimensional role as a manic pixie girl type chasing after Dave Franco’s character. Although she is given some rather meta dialogue – about being the ‘lady horseman’ and who will be playing the ‘floozy’ when they go undercover – these are not admirable additions by the script writer. More the least they could do by using such one dimensional characterisation.
Although there is one impressive set piece (the heist to steal the data chip) and it was more than thrilling to see my ‘ends on the big screen (hello Greenwich!) the rest of the film is lacking in warmth, wit and, well, magic. It’s short on logic and right now seems to represent this year’s very dull summer of blockbusters.
A Truly Magical Disappointment of a Film
The best way to describe the experience of watching this film is to rely on an analogy using The Great British Bake Off (or another cooking/baking show of your preference). Have you ever watched GBBO and observed someone producing a glorious looking cake that everyone talks about, so decide to have a go yourself? So you include all the ingredients they used; having added them at the same time and the same way, you then place it in the oven. However, when you open the oven to take out the cake you made it looks nothing like the cake you saw on the show. In fact your cake looks flat, plain and tastes nowhere as good as the cake appeared on TV. Now – replace the ‘you’ with ‘the production team of Pan’; the ingredients being the script, mise-en-scene, cast etc and the cake with Pan. That is what watching this film is like. Everything is there. It should work. It’s worked for so many other people. It just doesn’t work here.
It’s the middle of World War Two. Peter (Levi Miller) was abandoned by his mother (Amanda Seyfried) when he was only a baby. Left on the door steps of an orphanage he has lived his entire life there. It is all he knows. The orphanage is managed by a tyrannical nun (Kathy Burke) who Peter suspects is making and hoarding a profit, leaving the boys in her charge eating gruel and wearing rags. Peter and his sidekick decide to investigate, and find a hoard both of food and gold. He also finds his personal record, including a letter from his mother who promises they’ll meet again, ‘In this world or another.’ They are found and punished; with Mother Superior ripping the note into pieces. Later that night they find out where the gold has come from, when a pirate ship comes to forcibly collect the young boys. After a scuffle with some fighter aircrafts, the pirate ship crosses the barriers of time and space to arrive in Neverland. In Neverland he will find fun and friendships, in the form of James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), and together they will have to rise against the monstrous regime of Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Peter will discover his destiny and begin to become the future legend that is Peter Pan.
That plot summary makes the film sound exciting, right? That is ultimately what makes the film so disappointing, on paper it sounds good and on screen it looks good yet it doesn’t quite land. The audience are left watching sequences of increasing splendour and yet will remain impassive and disengaged with the events. The film becomes a case study in a failed attempt at Magical Realism. Upon analysis, there are a plethora of reasons as to why this is the case, though I shall just focus on the main two.
Cast: The cast were truly ill-advised on how to portray their characters. Jackman, as Blackbeard, spends all of his screen time dialled up to 11. He’s almost like a pantomime dame chewing at the scenery. In a way this makes sense, as the film attempts to pitch an overly theatrical approach, yet it does little favours for Jackman who we have seen far better in so much more. If only he had some quieter moments, allowing for development of beats and nuances, it would have made for a more interesting performance. If acting is all about finding a balance between lights and shades, Jackman’s acting here is so bright it’ll blind. Then we’ve got Hedlund as Hook, played as a Southern gent cowboy-type. The clear intent was to make him an endearing character, shown to care about his friends and loyalties and make the audience wonder how he and Peter became such great enemies later on. It would have been a nice enough take on the character if Hedlund did not spend 2/3 of his lines hunched over, squinting them and barking them at his fellow cast. We get it, you’re stereotypically Southern – just please stop shouting! Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily starts high then gradually disappoints. She’s set up to be a great warrior, but little of this is actually shown. When announced that she was starring in this many were surprised, as Mara’s roles utilise her maudlin persona to great effect. The result in Pan is that she spends the entire film looking as if she doesn’t really want to be there. Which is hardly surprising considering how much source material the sequences with her and her tribe will provide for critics and theorists of cultural appropriation will provide. The only good thing to say about the film is that 13-year-old Levi Miller is a promising new talent who does a great job of carrying the heavy burden of this film.
Script: The need for prequels is a matter of personal opinion. The need for a decent script in prequel is not. This review should serve as a warning to those who want to write a prequel – do not do as this film does. It’s all fine and dandy to include references to the pre-existing film, cheeky lines acknowledging past references for the audience which hint at future inevitable events for the characters. But please, for the love of God, do not write them like they are in the screenplay for Pan. There are so many here, which are shoehorned in so poorly and recited by the actors so stiffly that I genuinely suspect they were written in the actual script like this:
Tiger Lily: What? Are you scared of CROCODILES?
Hook: NO! Now excuse me while I stick my HAND in the CROCODILE-INFESTED WATER.
Peter: Great. Now we’re lost!
Hook: Yes. We’re LOST BOYS!
Peter: Well we better think HAPPY THOUGHTS.
Peter: We’ll always be FRIENDS won’t we Hook?
Hook: Of course! What could ever happen to CHANGE that?
Mother: You’re my Peter. My PETER PAN.
Now, I may not have used exact phrasing there (I think my brain has tried to delete some of the film in a type of self-protection manoeuvre) but those references are as subtle stated as they are above. In fact, the only way they could have been made less subtle is by having the cast recite them turning to the camera with a raised eyebrow and nudging with their elbow. The intention of including these lines (though perhaps not in a manner as poorly as done here) is to establish a clear link between this film and the far far far superior 1953 animation and the 1911 novel. However, this has a counteractive effect, reminding the audience of how much they love either of the original products. Save the money of a cinema ticket and dig out your copy of the book or film.
This leads us to an ultimate conclusion, was this film really necessary? I’ve written in past reviews (Ant-Man and Fantastic Four are the first two that spring to mind) about the difficulties of origin stories. Did we really need to know what made Peter Pan into the Peter Pan? If they really thought people would care about the backstory between Hook and Pan why not show it instead of ending the movie with a heavy-handed sequence that signposted for a sequel – which may not be so inevitable considering Pan has royally bombed at the box office. To be so over-dependent on continuing the story on, instead of giving a satisfying if albeit temporary conclusion, is lazy storytelling.
This film overestimates how good or necessary it is. It manages to make the magical mundane and dreary – an unforgivable crime of cinema.