This film of magical heists and mystery looked like just a fairly fun outing from the trailers, and I’m glad to say that is what I received. Now You See Me has a great cast of talent that delivers, a script that is smart enough, and a premise that maintains your interest to see where the next twist will take you. It’s not brilliant, but it is well designed to entertain.
An elite FBI squad, led by Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is pitted in a game of cat and mouse against “The Four Horsemen,” (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, David Franco) a super-team of the world’s greatest illusionists who a year ago were mere street performers. “The Four Horsemen” pull off a series of daring heists against corrupt business leaders during their performances, showering the stolen profits on their audiences while staying one step ahead of the law. Their sensationalistic crimes also ensnare the attention of Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) who now debunks and exposes the tricks of magicians for his own gain. As the Horsemen’s grand game of misdirection and slight of hand escalates towards their grand finale, it’s a cunning game of wits for all to pull the curtain back to unveil the hidden truth behind it all.
Indeed, what sells this film in general is the excellent acting talents involved. Morgan Freeman is surefire as this former magician who now seeks to debunk the best in the business for higher fortune. He keeps the riddles twisting around the audience leading us on, but never fully revealing the next step. How he deconstructs how the Four Horsemen executed their tricks and heists is smartly done. Freeman does a wonderful job here bringing his usual intellectual savvy to this perceptive character.
The Horsemen themselves are vibrantly portrayed with Jesse Eisenberg being the strongest of them as J. Daniel Atlas. He really projects some smart, quick witted savvy that demonstrates Daniel’s leadership, and his humorous banter with his co-stars is quick and sharp. He definitely feels like the guy who could outsmart anyone in the room, and do it with style. Isla Fisher plays nicely off of Eisenberg as Henley and Daniel have some romantic fallout between them, but it’s kept light and smart. Woody Harrelson puts in a real good performance showing Merritt McKinley to be a very intuitive personality from his skills as a mentalist. He can read people up and down, inside and out to pull little hints of information from them, and Harrelson uses that to solid comedic effect. Dave Franco might seem like the weak link in the team, by design, but he eventually gets his moments to shine as street hustler Jack Wilder. Altogether, this is a great foursome of sharp talents that never upstage one another, but instead, complement each other in a cohesive fashion. They’re very fun to watch.
And of course, Mark Ruffalo is a charming treat as Dylan Rhodes. Ruffalo brings charisma and a rough edge to Rhodes, but maintains him as an enjoyable, smart guy that you can connect with. He is always portrayed as a competent and solid FBI Agent, but you see him trying to deconstruct all of these theatrics with regular investigative work. So, it’s a fun ride to see him weave through it all dealing with Thaddeus Bradley as well as French Interpol Agent Dray, who you’re given reason to suspect as being not entirely as she seems. Ruffalo has decent chemistry with Mélanie Laurent. There are never sparks flying between them, but it’s an honest and sweet pairing that has its light humor and genuineness. Basically, if you liked what Ruffalo did as Bruce Banner in The Avengers, I think you’ll enjoy the humor, heart, and charisma he brings forth here.
The visual effects throughout the film are very excellent. They sell the flash and style of the Horsemen’s illusions with stellar results. There might be one or two moments where the CGI isn’t as good as it is elsewhere, but in the vast majority, this is seamless and awesome work. It gives the film its visual flare and style. And it is an exceptionally well shot movie. Director Louis Leterrier really knows how to put together a visually solid movie as I did very much enjoy The Incredible Hulk, and the integration of visual effects into live action is superbly done under his direction. Leterrier beautifully utilizes all the rich talent he has at this disposal here, and executes this script with smart direction that kept me engaged and guessing.
And while I expected fun and flashiness, I was pleasantly surprised that the film had some nice action sequences. There’s a decently well stage foot chase through the crowded streets of New Orleans with some clever beats. Later on, when the FBI is closing in on the Horsemen, we get an extremely impressive and acrobatic fight scene with Franco and Ruffalo. There’s some great, fast, and fluid moves in this that just stunned me from Dave Franco. He’s combating people with swift actions like that of a ninja, and this sequence showcases smarts and sharpness in every second. Following this, there’s a really good car chase through Manhattan, New York. All of this action is very well done with only a few minor moments of shaky cam, but it ultimately came out to be very pleasing. The film’s climax isn’t really action based, but focused on the story and motives behind this elaborate magic trick. It unfolds nicely with fine dramatic beats, but surely, I won’t be spoiling any of these well written and executed reveals to you at all.
How the mystery all plays out is engaging and intriguing. I kind of view the movie, going in, as The Prestige crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, and that’s generally how to look at it in concept. It doesn’t match the brilliance of either of those films, but as I said, it’s a fun, entertaining experience. It is the twisting and turning puzzle that the Horsemen are constructing that make it interesting. You don’t know what the next trick will be, but it’s about even more than that. It’s not just the magic that they perform and how they did it, but the motives behind it keep you guessing. It’s cleverly designed through and through. How it’s all setup with a mysterious benefactor bringing together and enabling this foursome, even the Horsemen don’t know the full truth, and so, there is a layered mystery at hand. The FBI is just interested in catching these performers in the act of the crime, and Bradley is interested in burning them down for his own self-serving fame and fortune. So, everyone has their motives, and they all nicely interweave into the reveals at the film’s end. The ultimate twist is something I’m a little divided on. I liked the moment of the reveal as it is dramatically and beautifully played, but it wasn’t quite setup in the film. All of the other pieces are there to assemble the motives and interwoven storylines together. As a magic trick played on a grand canvas, this film does a really excellent job of doing that. The ultimate reveal just felt like it needed a little more punch. Something like a Keyser Söze reveal where the clues were there the whole time, but you couldn’t pick up on them. Something subtle, something between the lines that would strike you at just the right moment. I could figure out the why, but not entirely who amongst this cast or beyond would be the Horsemen’s ultimate benefactor. It’s far away from being a poor ending, but it could’ve benefitted from a little more setup.
Frankly, I think Now You See Me is just a fun time to have at the movie theatre. I’m sure if you went into it with a critical mind you could nitpick it apart, and see how really unbelievable the plot is in all its little nuances. Thankfully, I was enjoying myself consistently throughout this movie, and was able to sit back, relax, and just have a pleasant time with it. Just like magic, you have to let your mind go and just allow yourself to be entertained by the cleverness and spectacle at hand. The film is smartly written overall, in my opinion, and I found that there was plenty of subtle setup and pay-off for practically everything in here. This film captures the spirit of magic very well, and it’s almost refreshing to see a film of so many vibrant characters without a real villain in the mix. Everyone is enjoyable in their own ways, and next to no one is tinged with villainy. It’s just a fun ride that I think essentially anyone can enjoy if they’re willing to just embrace it.
People like to rag on Michael Bay a lot, but most forget he has a few gems amongst the over bloated messes in his filmography. Quite frankly, I believe his first movie was his best, and that is indeed Bad Boys. Burdened with a really bad script written for a Dana Carvey / Jon Lovitz comedy vehicle, Bay relied heavily on the comedic smarts and chemistry of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith to salvage it with extensive improvisation. What he got was an exceptionally well made, tightly paced, and sharply stylized charismatic action hit.
One hundred million dollars worth of confiscated heroin has just been jacked from police custody. Once the career bust of Detectives Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), the missing drugs now threaten to shut down the narcotics division of the Miami Police Department. The thieves turn deadly when they murder one of their own, a once crooked cop, and Maxine, a beautiful call girl who was a close friend of Mike’s. Now, the only witness to this double murder and the link to recovering the dope is Maxine’s friend Julie (Téa Leoni), who must come under the protective custody of Lowery and Burnett before these criminals eliminate her permanently.
What really grabs me about Bad Boys is how sharp and funny Lawrence and Smith are. These two have excellent chemistry that would be hard to constrain, but I think Bay had himself in sync with these two. He directed their banter down the right line which wholly fits their characters, and never allows it to go on a wild tangent. I like the quick scenes early on that just have them trading comedic blows, but it serves a purpose to build the characters and establish their relationship. The opening scene is a big favorite of mine. This is Michael Bay focused and driven to deliver something impressive. He had something to prove in his directorial debut, and the script he had was so horrible even he called it a “piece of shit.” I only wish he still had those standards today. So, it was a lot of pressure making Bad Boys, but he surrounded himself in extremely talented individuals like Smith and Lawrence along with two blockbuster producers to make this a success.
This has all the hallmarks of a Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer production. It’s slick, stylish, fresh, and exciting. I miss the time where producers like them or even Joel Silver alone influenced the quality and style of the movies. They were as big of a mark of quality as the right director. Bay’s style is also evident here with a lot of dynamic camera angles, beautiful dramatic lighting, and some gorgeous sweeping camera movements. Bay creates a very visually stunning work that energizes the movie, raising it up to a very high quality cinematic level. It absolutely has that 1990’s music video visual scope and beauty which was essentially originated and refined by Bay. There’s some elegant and artistic production designs throughout that just give it an extra flare of style that does feel very Miami. The film also has very tight editing keeping the story moving forward at a great clip. Unlike many later Michael Bay films, it doesn’t languish on indulgences in comedy and frivolousness. Yes, there are almost straight comedy bits in there, but they just add to the fun of the movie.
The dramatic aspects of the film are handled as amazingly as the comedy. There are several moments in the film where the impact of Maxine’s death reverberates and resonates. Bay gives it epic weight to propel the motivations forward for Julie and Mike. In many of Bay’s later films, those qualities are often drowned out by too much bad comedy or just poor characterizations. Here, he shows he knew how to do it right.
I know there are many who find Martin Lawrence irritating, to say the least. I can see that, but I just feel he does his best in this movie, especially when he has someone like Will Smith to work off of. Marcus Burnett is a guy with a lot of stresses on him from not getting his “quality time” at home, and the constant danger everyone keeps getting him into. The biggest being having to impersonate Mike for the sake of securing Julie, who trusts Lowery solely, and being forced to lie to his own wife about the arrangement. So, the wiseass quips and abrasive attitude are dead-on-the-mark. It also creates the classic buddy cop dynamic of conflicting personalities. Mike is smooth and competent while Marcus is more excitable and apprehensive.
Of course, Will Smith is charming and charismatic, but injects a lot of toughness and conviction into Mike Lowery. He’s not just a smooth player. He’s a dedicated, determined, wicked good cop that works situations with savvy and sharp aggression. Mike might be a rich kid with a comfortable lifestyle, but as he says he “pushes it to the max every day.” It’s a great dynamic between Burnett and Lowery, and this performance showed Will Smith to be a vastly marketable leading man and action capable actor. Proving that statement is the fact that his very next film was Independence Day.
Téa Leoni is really great. The panicked, emotionally unsettled part of her performance has a lot of weight and depth. Yet, she makes the transition to the lighter tone smoothly with really good chemistry with Lawrence. She becomes even more enjoyable when Julie figures out that Marcus is really Marcus, and not Mike. She plays around with him, and that just adds a little more intelligence to her. Most of all, Leoni creates a very sympathetic and likeable character.
While Joe Pantoliano portrays almost the stereotypical angry police Captain, he’s great at it. As always, he’s smart and funny. Captain Howard barks orders with the best of them, but you understand the stress he’s under. The biggest bust his department’s ever achieved is lost, and all of their jobs are on the line under a very tight timetable. He has to motivate his detectives to work fast and smart before all their time and luck has run out. So, Pantoliano has that relatable quality where his yelling never overshadows the consummate cop underneath.
Tchéky Karyo gives us a fairly good villain. If there’s any weak area of the film it’s not his performance, but Fouchet is not well developed. It’s rather generic, but Karyo elevates it to a higher level through his very good presence and subtle touches he puts into it. He can evoke a calm tension when he speaks softly, but can really punctuate greatly when the aggression is unleashed. If Fouchet was a stronger villain on the page, I think the film would feel like it has a beefier pay-off.
I absolutely adore Mark Mancina’s score. The main theme is beautiful and perfect with its slight Latin flavor, hip hop rhythm, rock electric guitar, and epic scale strings. It’s an inspired meshing of musical styles that feel just perfect. His overall work on this movie was big, heart pounding, and dramatic flowing perfectly with Michael Bay’s directorial style. The entire soundtrack just hits the right 90’s intensity and style all the way through.
If there’s one thing that I’ve never seen disputed about Michael Bay is that he knows how to do action sequences amazingly well. He really is a master of epic action using score and weighty slow motion shots to intensify every dangerous scenario. The entire climax is excellently done with plenty of explosive moments and greatly satisfying action. The final car chase is insanely intense with its great use of tight close-ups, tense, pounding music, and extremely tight editing. The violent, dramatic quality of it all is just masterful. This really does follow in the tradition of Tony Scott, but pushed to the next level. That is probably much due to the Simpson / Bruckheimer backing.
While the story is rather simple and straight forward, it is populated with a lot of fun. Bay keeps the mix of dramatic momentum and comedic wit appropriately balanced. The comedy might be in abundance here, but it never dilutes or dwarfs the dramatic urgency of the storyline. Both the comedy and action stick strongly in your mind after the film’s over. It all just blends together smoothly and smartly for a wildly entertaining and fun ride.
Bad Boys really set the tone for late 90’s action. Very polished and stylized cinematography, largely dramatic slow motion action, and just an epic feel all around. It launched the careers of Bay and Smith into the stratosphere as two the biggest blockbuster names around, and for good reason. While Bad Boys isn’t as big of an action movie as either of them or Simpson / Bruckheimer were involved with, it’s greatly fun, exciting, and spectacularly made. Sharp, smart, and beautifully shot, this vibrantly showed that there was talent here to harness. These days, I think Michael Bay could use some restraints and more focused vision like he had here. Even Bad Boys II came off a bit over bloated and self-indulgent by taking what was great in this first movie and amplifying it beyond what it needed to be. Still, if a third movie ever does eventually get made, I’m sure I’ll be game to give it a fair chance as you should definitely do for this movie, if you haven’t already.
I have a tendency to miss out on great films in the theatre due to an uncertainty about them. I can get so used to how mainstream films are marketed that when I see something distinctly different, it’s hard to be sold on it. Thankfully, better late than never, some trusted word of mouth finally got me to check out Drive. To my sensibilities, this is an astonishing, flat out amazing film. This feels like if Michael Mann made a movie between Thief and Manhunter, and was scored by Tangerine Dream. This is fully evocative of a 1980s neo noir crime thriller with its sense of tone and atmosphere and using a magnificent soundtrack to envelop an audience into its emotion. Beyond that, I feel Drive is also brilliant.
Ryan Gosling stars as a Hollywood stunt driver by day that moonlights as a wheelman for criminals by night. He’s employed and aided by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a former stuntman who is propositioning the shady Bernard Rose (Albert Brooks) to invest in a race car venture with this “Driver” as their star. Though a loner by nature, the Driver can’t help falling in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband. After a heist goes wrong, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals including Rose himself and the bull-headed Nino (Ron Perlman). Soon he realizes the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash, and is forced to shift gears into a brutal, unrelenting head-on collision.
I will grant that the film is not heavy on plot. It’s fairly simple and straight forward keeping itself contained to a small collection of characters. Some might find that a letdown. However, the substance of this film is in the presentation. Ryan Gosling’s character is very minimal on dialogue allowing his presence and the atmosphere of the film to carry the Driver’s weight. The performance alone is very understated and low key, but not skimping on intensity or humanity. His carefully chosen words hold purpose, and Gosling’s soft spoken delivery forces an audience to focus their attention closely. Sometimes, a lack of dialogue can bring a mystique and an intriguing quality to a character, and Gosling sparks that magic. His performance allows you to read more into the man instead of him telling you about who he is, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off. The scenes where the Driver and Irene are together bring a subtle charm and heart to the surface. You see the brightness in the soul of this character that contrasts, and later, compliments his grittier, darker side. When he has to become that more intimidating, brutal person later on, Gosling has no problem being convincing. You can feel his visceral intensity permeating the screen. I was impacted hard by those razor sharp moments, and this all comes together in a rock solid piece of work by Ryan Gosling. This is my first exposure to his talent, and I couldn’t be more blown away. Also, wrapping him in that Scorpion jacket is just wickedly cool.
Carey Mulligan puts in a gracefully beautiful performance. She and Gosling have a fine chemistry that gives the film its warmth and purpose. Their performances reflect nicely off of one another with heart and subtlety. She never has to say a word to reflect Irene’s emotional conflict over her feelings between her husband and the Driver. Mulligan touchingly shows that in her eyes and expressions, and how she gravitates to this new charming, under spoken man in her life. It’s an engaging and inviting piece of work.
Albert Brooks is a shocking powerhouse heavy here. He’s intimidating as all hell while still having his light hearted, humorous moments. Still, I never stopped getting that shady feeling from him that he was a mob boss that could slash your wrist or stab you in the eye with a fork without batting an eyelash. There’s such a fine line the character treads that Brooks walks with ease. Even when he’s being friendly, there’s still that sense of unease behind everything he says, and even before you know he’s a mob boss, you get the feeling that there’s something not entirely straight about Bernie Rose. For me, he ranks amongst the best like Christopher Walken in True Romance or Robert Prosky in Thief. He can turn from being your best friend to your absolute worst enemy in half a heartbeat without even seeing a shift in the character’s manner. It’s all rather matter of fact with him, and Brooks carries the appropriate weight to achieve these character traits throughout the picture. I love Albert Brooks’ performance supremely.
The supporting cast is also finely textured. Bryan Cranston has a broken down heartfelt sympathy as Shannon, the mechanic and former stuntman that aids and endorses Gosling’s character. He’s a good natured person who gets in too heavy with the wrong people, and you can’t help but feel for him when things turn worse. Ron Perlman’s gangster character of Nino is interesting. He’s a Jewish man trying to make himself out to be an Italian mobster. It’s not an overt part of his performance, but it ties into Nino’s motivations for being a “belligerent asshole,” as Bernie Rose puts it. Nino has plenty of bravado and ego, but not a lot of good sense. Perlman nicely inhabits those qualities with plenty of enthusiasm. Oscar Isaac does well as Irene’s husband Standard. The character clearly stands out as a person stuck in a number of unwanted situations. These criminals are violently pressuring him to do this job for him to pay back his debt, and it’s subtlety obvious that his wife does not want to be with him, anymore. Isaac shows the character’s regret well, and comes off more of a sorry man than a sympathetic one. He’s a guy that’s made a mess of things, and knows nothing will ever be okay ever again. The damage is done, and he’s just trying to sweep it under the rug as neatly as possible. However, he’s endangered the lives of his wife and son, and the Driver has no sympathy for the man. He only helps him out for the benefit of Irene and Benicio. These actors all add a strong array of emotion to the film which heightens the tone and atmosphere.
Now, speaking of atmosphere, the score constantly hit me as something very akin to Tangerine Dream’s score for Risky Business. It has that very light, dreamy quality to it most times, but does delve into very dark, heavy territories. There are foreboding, tense moments in this score that are just mesmerizing. Cliff Martinez crafts a deeply enveloping auditory experience which soaks into nearly every fiber of the film, but the filmmakers pick key moments where silence holds more weight than a soundtrack. The collection of songs in this film retain that 1980s ambient synth-pop quality, but have a modern quality that is beyond my ability to articulate. From my own independent filmmaking experiences, I know how insanely difficult it is to find modern original music that sounds like it came from the 1980s. So, the fact that music supervisors Eric Craig and Brian McNeils discovered and assembled music of this amazing style and quality impresses me to no end. I purchased the CD soundtrack, and it now ranks as one of my absolute favorites of all time.
The chase scenes of Drive are masterful. The first one is exceptionally smart being tactical in evading the police instead of going for outright action. That aspect come later after the botched robbery. It’s short and to the point being very slam bang intense, and not over indulging in itself. The opening sequence is exceptionally refreshing by being intelligent. On top of being realistic and smart, it is an excellent introduction to our main character showing his precision as a getaway driver. These scenes are expertly shot accentuating the distinct tones and tensions of both sequences.
When this film gets brutal, it holds nothing back, and hardly goes in predictable directions. The Driver never relies on a gun, and instead, goes with blunt force trauma to inflict violence upon people. The scene where he goes into the strip club wouldn’t be nearly as effective if he just brandished a gun the guy’s face. When you see the Driver pull out a hammer, you know this is going to be dead serious business, and it’s not going to be pretty. It’s a startling, powerful sequence which further propels the character’s threat level. He’s not just some cool headed amazing driver, he’s a dangerous man not worth crossing. The violence overall is graphic and gory, and shockingly unsettling. Emotion just pours through these scenes.
I am further floored by the cinematography talents of Newton Thomas Sigel. I’ve previously reviewed his work on The Usual Suspects and Fallen – both gorgeous films with their own identities. Drive is no different. No shot is ever wasted, and every composition is chosen with purpose. How the film is shot reflects the artistic vision realized with the music, acting, and editing. The film has inspired moments of absolute cinematic beauty due to Sigel’s artistic brilliance. The elevator scene late in the film is a magnificent example of this. The lighting and color tones used throughout create rich visuals which enhance the film’s atmosphere further.
This is a film where every element is cohesively used to create a powerfully enveloping experience. The conservative editing style of Matthew Newman allows Sigel’s shots to hold their weight, and establish a somber or rich tone that draws an audience into every moment. The music enhances those moments to create a wonderfully vibrant sonic quality for even the most still or fluid sequences. I haven’t seen a film like this since Manhunter. The music plays such a prominent role in creating a rich atmosphere that is as in the forefront of the picture as the actors. Each aspect is integral towards what is a wonderfully engrossing motion picture.
Drive is something which shows what independent film can do. It takes chances. It goes for a filmmaking style that has not really been around in more than twenty years. It takes an immensely effective way of crafting and presenting a film that a major studio would likely not embrace. It’s an intelligent, fresh, and creative film that feeds the senses. It gives you white knuckle action, a heartfelt romantic storyline, strong character drama, graphic brutality, gorgeous cinematic moments, intelligent writing, amazing performances, and a beautiful, exciting soundtrack. It’s hard to imagine all of these phenomenal visual and auditory elements coming across in a screenplay, but Hossein Amini clearly wrote something truly inspiring on those script pages to inspire the amazing film we ultimately got. I know nothing of the James Sallis novel this was based on, but clearly, the written word captured the vibrant imagination of these filmmakers. I will admit that Drive is not a mass audience movie as it requires an appreciation for a certain filmmaking style, but for those that love a slick 1980s style crime thriller that utilizes strong atmosphere and a prominent synth-pop soundtrack to wrap you up in its story and characters, this is absolutely for you. In my view, Drive is a meticulously crafted masterpiece of cinema born out of a bold vision from director Nicolas Winding Refn. I love this film thoroughly, and I cannot give it a higher recommendation than that.