Thursday, September 16, 2010

Now You See Me

Genre: Heist/Action
Premise: A group of famous magicians combine their talents to perform a trio of heists.
About: This is a spec sale picked up by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. See Me is written by Edward Ricourt and Boaz Yakin. Yakin wrote the 1989 version of The Punisher, The Rookie, and directed Remember the Titans. Ricourt’s career has been a little shorter. He was a member of Marvel Studios’ writing program and wrote last year’s Black List script, Year 12, about earth 12 years after of an alien invasion.
Writer: Boaz Yakin & Edwart Ricourt
Details: 117 pages – May 2009 Draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

In the world of screenwriting, it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with a truly original high concept. “Aliens invade earth” can only be used so many times. Now You See Me is the most original high concept I’ve heard in awhile. I know this because I’m far from a “bank heist” guy, but boy did I get excited when I heard about this bank heist. Unfortunately the problem with these great-sounding premises is the writers usually screw it up within the first 20 pages by giving us the most obvious version of the story. Well I’m happy to announce that that’s not the case with Now You See Me. They don’t just come up with the concept – they execute it.

See Me opens up with a great scene. Our four protagonists are up on a Vegas stage performing their first of three limited engagements. There’s Michael Atlas, our illustrious leader, Roderigo, a master craftsman of magical devices, London Osborne, a testy hypnotist, and young Alex Hero, a sleight-of-hand master. They name themselves the “Four Horsemen” and because each has become the most popular magician in their field, the fact that they’re teaming up has the world buzzing.

After Atlas works the crowd with his disappointment over the fading economy, he invites a random audience member up on stage. Wouldn’t it be nice, he ponders, if they could get back some of that money that’s been taken from them? Behind them are a series of video screens displaying security camera feeds of a bank. But not just any bank, a bank in Paris, the very bank this audience member belongs to. Atlas’ cohorts perform some vanishing trickery, and the audience watches in shock as Atlas and the audience member APPEAR in the video feeds. In the bank. IN PARIS!

They march their way into the vault, take all the money inside, and the next thing you know, money is RAINING FROM THE CEILINGS of the auditorium. REAL MONEY. The audience scrambles about, grabbing as much as they can, and our magicians walk off stage amidst an air of mystery.

But it gets better. The authorities call up the bank in Paris. Indeed, their vault has been robbed of the same amount of money stolen in those security videos. The cops are flabbergasted. How can that have possibly happened?

Dylan Hobbes, an FBI agent who’s overworked his way right out of a marriage, is tasked with figuring that out. He’s dead set on booking these guys but that’s not going to be easy when our heroes have a couple of thousand alibis. I mean you can’t keep people in custody for teleporting to Paris, robbing a bank, and teleporting back, can you? So after a lot of strong-arming, he’s forced to let them go.

That’s when we meet Thaddeus Bradley, a broken down old curmudgeon who’s seen more magic than Harry Potter’s underwear. Thaddeus is a magician’s mortal enemy – one of those “exposer” types who peels back the curtain on magicians’ secrets to make a quick buck. It turns out he taught Atlas everything he knows. And he knows how he pulled off his robbery. The trick is catching him in the act of the other two. He offers his services and even though Hobbes hates him, he has no choice but to let him join the team.

We then follow the Four Horseman to Atlantic City, where they expose a greedy insurance scammer, and finally Los Angeles, where they try and pull off the biggest robbery ever.

Now You See Me has the kind of spirit summer movies used to have. There’s no sex-starved vampires, rushed sequels, or superheroes here. It’s big, it’s fun, and – gasp - even attempts to make you think a little. That’s not to say the script doesn’t have problems (it’s noticeably top-heavy) but the fun-factor helps it overcome them.

The strongest aspect to me is how they approached the story. If I told you I had a script about magicians who were bank robbers, the first thing you’d probably imagine is a group of magicians, some caped, some with masks, breaking into banks, throwing down smoke bombs, disappearing and reappearing inside vaults – in other words the most straightforward interpretation of the idea. The fact that the writers approach this in a completely different way – where the characters create a spectacle of their heists, performing them in front of hundreds, makes this way more interesting than anything I could’ve imagined. It’s a good reminder that whenever you have an idea, you want to sit down and look at all the ways you could execute it. The most obvious way is not always the best way, and that little extra effort you put into figuring that out, is going to pay huge dividends in the months (and maybe years) you spend on the script.

I also thought all the magicians were great. They’re not particularly deep but the mastery each has over their respective crafts gives them this heroic quality that really makes you want to root for them. Audiences like characters who are really good at what they do. I don’t know why but that's always been the case. And to solidify the love-fest, it was a clever coup to not only have them steal the money, but give it back to the public. I mean who doesn’t like Robin Hood (unless, of course, Russell Crowe is playing him)?

Now You See Me does most of its character exploration with Dylan Hobbes, the workaholic FBI agent who never received the memo about ‘family time.’ This is probably the only character that fell flat. Dylan’s problems are generic and uninteresting and there don’t seem to be any stakes attached to them. There are all these scenes with him and his wife/ex-wife (I’m still not sure what she is), talking about how he works too much, but there’s never that ultimatum. He never gets that “It's either your family or your work.” If you’re not going to challenge your protagonist’s flaw, then why have it in the first place?

I suppose the only concerning issue here is the progression (or I should say “degression”) of the performances themselves. The opening performance in Vegas is awesome. So much so that the other two can’t possibly live up to it. And they don’t. The second performance, in particular, which exposes a shady insurance magnate, doesn’t even set up the magnate ahead of time. So when he’s exposed, a mere 1 minute after we meet him, we don’t care. Had they set him up earlier as a true bad guy, that would’ve helped. I like that the third robbery takes place at a unique location, but that location is so cold and grey and dead, it doesn’t feel right. These guys are putting on a show. The final performance needs to be visual and cinematic and exciting. Not some ugly brick warehouse out in the middle of nowhere. Also, the order of the cities seems off. Vegas is the crown jewel. Shouldn’t it be saved for last?

But these problems are the equivalent of having bad food at a wedding reception. Who the hell cares about the food? You just wanna get drunk and have a blast. And “See Me” gets you wasted.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Be careful starting your script out too big. True, you want to rope in the reader right away. But if your opening scene is the best scene in the script that means it’s all downhill from there. Spielberg has said that his only problem with Hereafter is that it starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. I couldn’t agree more. The movie starts with this awesome tsunami sequence and then doesn’t have a single scene that comes close afterwards. Now You See Me is not in that category, but I think it’ll have to raise the level of its second and final performances if it truly wants to be a great movie.