Last weekend, in the shadow of “Fast & Furious 6,” the science fiction film “After Earth” was widely predicted to come in a close second at the box office. Lo and behold, however, American audiences opted instead for a bank heist committed by street magicians called “Now You See Me.” called the film’s success “particularly impressive” and “way above expectations,” suggesting audiences found its “fun, original premise … a breath of fresh air.”

Now in its second weekend, “Now You See Me” kept up the pace, dropping only 33 percent from its opening (most films drop 45-60 percent) and scoring more dollars per theater than all but one film in the nation’s top 10.

This weekend, then, rather than spending my ticket money on the new, R-rated horror flick that – despite its dismal reputation in previews – is topping the box office, I decided to go see what all the buzz was about in “Now You See Me.”

And sure enough, “Now You See Me” is a crowd-pleaser, starring a charismatic cast (Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine, Jesse Eisenberg and more) playing our favorite, familiar roles and twisting out a plot filled with mystery and intrigue. Its magic show is indeed a “fun, original premise.”

The story follows four street magicians who are called together by an unknown fifth party to pull off the heist of the century, literally robbing banks and corrupt businessmen of billions as part of their act and casting the money out into the audience.

Two law enforcement officials, a business tycoon and a magic-show “debunker” are hot on their trail to find out how “The Four Horsemen” are pulling off their stunning performances.

The plot leaves you guessing – sometimes right, sometimes not – and the double entertainment value of both seeing magic tricks performed and learning how they’re done drives a highly entertaining movie.

I have some criticism of “Now You See Me” – some plot points stretch credibility too far and some camera work early in the film is annoyingly vertigo-inducing – but for the most part, it’s a fun and intriguing film just different enough from the norm to make audience enthusiasm for it understandable. And the premise isn’t nearly as “Occupy” friendly as it may sound – the magicians have a reason (no spoilers) for targeting the deep pockets they rob.

Commending the movie, however, must come with a grain of salt.

For starters, the bank robbers become the default “good guys” of the movie, and themes of greed, glory and revenge – along with some occult elements (see “content advisory” below) – are celebrated. Law and order get tossed out the window, too, as audiences cheer for the villains.

A further mixed bag, though a far more interesting one, comes from a subtext of the film, as the two law enforcement officers (one FBI, the other Interpol) maintain a feisty dialogue about magic that seems a thinly veiled allusion to questions of faith.

The FBI agent argues against magicians in general, suggesting they exploit others’ weaknesses by getting them to believe in the supernatural as a means of comfort (wait, are we talking about magic … or attacking religion here?).

The Interpol agent, on the other hand, argues suspending disbelief even for a moment legitimately gives comfort and joy.

Later in the film, the Interpol agent explains to the FBI man that “faith can move mountains,” a phrase coined from Matthew 17:20.

The quasi-religious banter continues in the film, as the Interpol agent insists the FBI man trust her, that he “take a leap of faith.” And again she suggests that some things unseen, like love, truly exist, and can he believe in that?

In the end, will he maintain his constant skepticism, insisting only the natural, logical and observable can define truth? Or will he bend to accept there are some things, as the movie suggests, “bigger than all of us”?

Granted, those questions aren’t nearly as riveting as the magical, bank-heist whodunit that drives “Now You See Me,” but it does provide a little spice to a film that’s already pretty sweet.

Content advisory:

  • “Now You See Me,” rated PG-13, contains about 50 obscenities and profanities.
  • The film contains about a half-dozen instances of lewd dialogue and banter, a few camera shots revealing leg or cleavage, a kiss, and a scene where a groupie strips to her bra and panties and leaps upon a magician, but the scene is interrupted before it goes any further.
  • The film contains a pair of violent scenes – one a fight between a magician and law enforcement, the other a car chase and crash – and a few other mild instances of violence. There is a potentially disturbing scene, however, where a magic trick appears to go awry when a school of piranha is dropped into a tank with a woman, filling the water quickly with blood (but no actual gore is seen).
  • In addition to the religious allusions mentioned above, the film does have some minor occult content including: four tarot-like cards that serve as calling cards for the mysterious fifth magician, a scene that takes place in a New Orleans mystical curio shop, a voodoo doll whereupon it is warned that striking it in anger will return bad luck to the striker, Egyptian hieroglyphics and discussion of “The Eye” an alleged league of elite magicians who have sought new members since ancient times. Images of “the Eye” are frequently seen.

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