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Surely, we think, the cast itself is a magic trick – a triumph of misdirection and manipulation. How, in an era of omnipresent movie hype, did a movie as entertaining, and smart and irresistible as “Now You See Me,” virtually sneak into megaplexes with this cast: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Isla Fisher, Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson?

For good measure, you can add much lesser known worthies Dave Franco and Melanie Laurent.

But no. It’s no trick. Nor is it fraud. Granted, Caine’s role is lesser, but it’s no tiny cameo either. It’s crucial, in fact, to the story of the film.

In a summertime where everything seems to come from comic books or has CGI up the yin yang or is riddled with bullets and deafened by explosions, here is a movie you didn’t expect: a happy, off-the-wall original.

It’s true some of us will remember a couple of hugely underrated films that came out in 2006 about the world of magic and magicians – “The Illusionist” and, especially, Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” which also featured Caine. And didn’t we just get a few bizarre laughs out of Jim Carrey’s typically dark, gonzo clowning in the otherwise oafish comedy “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone?”

But here we’ve got a high-level cast playing thieving Vegas mega-magicians – a group of four individual virtuosi in magic who come together to form the Magic Act to End All Magic Acts: the Four Horsemen.

First, there’s Daniel, played by fast-talker Jesse Eisenberg. He does the “pick a card, any card” number on the street. Then he riffles the deck. Is that your card? No, you say in a rube’s typical smug exultation at catching the magician in his incompetence.

Well then is that your card, he says with a sweeping gesture indicating the skyscraper behind his back. And sure enough. The Seven of Diamonds is clearly formed by the lit windows of the building.

And then there’s Isla Fisher as Henley, the shapely redhead who doffs her clothes and in a tight-fitting skimpy costume, allows herself to be chained up and locked to the floor inside a water tank. If she can’t unlock her chains in 60 seconds, an enormous school of piranha will be dumped into the small tank with her.

She tries. It doesn’t work. She can’t free herself. She can’t breathe either. Her assistants try to batter the unbreakable glass. The piranha are automatically dumped in with her. The tank is quickly aboil with blood, obliterating everyone’s view of everything. The audience recoils in horror at the carnage they’re witnessing.

What kind of B.S. is this, scoffs a soaking wet shapely redhead in a skimpy costume from within the audience. As soon as they realize who she is, the crowd, as they say, goes wild.

There are a couple of others too, notably Harrelson, who does some very juicy misdirections on the street, a few including post-hypnotic suggestion.

As the Four Horsemen, they announce on stage in Las Vegas that they’re going to rob a bank in Paris.

And they do.

Which, needless to say, brings them to the frantic attention of the FBI, led by a slow-talking dunderhead played by Mark Ruffalo. He brings them all in for questioning but spends the rest of the film reduced to following them around for their next spectacular gambit. He’s not so devoted that he doesn’t notice how beautiful and warm and inviting is the Interpol detective (Melanie Laurent), who explains who the Four Horsemen might be in the higher scheme of things. He is, though, our patsy throughout the movie.

Caine plays a billionaire magic fancier who finances their act. Morgan Freeman plays a professional debunker who plans to score some killer TV ratings by revealing how their stuff is done.

So off they all go, adding zeroes to the bank accounts of unsuspecting audience members in New Orleans. And then there’s that street crowd in New York and that gigantic safe bulging money.

And when the movie comes to a hugely satisfying conclusion – all to prove its point that “the closer you look, the less you see” – you come to a thoroughly heartening corollary conclusion.

To wit: there’s no reason on God’s green earth that this hugely entertaining bunch couldn’t be convened again soon and have their own summertime movie series, just like billionaires flying around in Iron Suits and international street racers.

I’m clapping, I’m clapping.


Now You See Me

3 1/2 stars (Out of four)

Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Woody Harrelson in Louis Lettrier’s smart adventure thriller about a bunch of superthief magicians who drive the FBI crazy. Rated PG-13, now playing at area theaters.