The movie opens with separate introductory scenes of four magicians, before they would be known as, "The Four Horsemen". We meet Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) as he performs street magic- the classic 'pick a card' trick, except here he has the person's card appear on the side of a building formed by office lights. We then see Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson), a mentalist, who is really more of a con artist. He extorts money from a husband, so his wife who’s been hypnotized, doesn’t find out he’s been cheating on her with her sister. We then go to a performance where Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) attempts to escape from a water tank… filled with piranhas. She appears to be eaten alive with blood filling the tank, but of course, this is part of the trick and she appears from the other side of the crowd. We then meet Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) as he does a bending spoon trick on a tourist boat. When he bets $100 to anyone that can explain how he does it, an audience member points out the pre-bent spoons in his pockets. When Jack goes to give him the prize money, it’s really a chance to pickpocket the guy. Each of these scenes end with a mysterious hooded figure in the background, and the magicians each finding a playing card that invites them to the same location.
They converge in front of a locked old apartment. Jack then tells them nothing is ever really locked and proceeds to pick it. When they enter, they see a sparse room; they see an empty vase and a rose lying on its side. Henley puts the rose in the vase, and it starts overflowing with water until a cloud of dry ice fills the room. A laser show then begins which gives the group the schematics for an elaborate magic stage production.
Flash forward one year, the Four Horsemen are playing to a packed house in Las Vegas. They do a series of acts which astound the audience. Before their finale, they thank their wealthy benefactor in the audience, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) for funding them when they first started. They end with supposedly picking a random audience member and asking him where he banks. The Frenchman tells them his bank in Paris. On stage, they place a ‘teleportation’ helmet on him, and he steps into a contraption that snaps shut. Now in Paris, they then see him on the stage screens inside a vault filled with millions of Euros. They ask him to place a signed, playing card in the middle of the pallet of money. They then activate a suction fan from the ceiling, and it appears all the cash is sucked up! We see 10 minutes later, the French bank employees walking into the safe to find an empty pallet and the signed, playing card. Back at the show, it begins to rain cash and the audience grabs what they can. We then see Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) taping the performance from a personal camera.
At the FBI, Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) has been assigned the case of the disappearing Euros. He also finds out he’s been partnered with Alma Vargas (Mélanie Laurent), an Interpol Agent from France. They interview each of the Four Horsemen in separate rooms, without learning much. Merrit plays mind games with them, implying chemistry between the two agents who just met. He also tells Dylan he senses a great deal of “daddy issues” with him. When they meet with Daniel, he pranks Dylan by throwing his cuffs on him instead and placing the key inside of Alma’s unopened soda can. Daniel tells them the first rule of magic- “Always be the smartest person in the room”.
The four are then released because there is no real evidence to hold them yet. Dylan then goes to Thaddeus, who we learn makes his fortune from defrauding magicians on his reality series. Thaddeus takes Dylan and Alma to the Vegas stage and tells them how the horsemen pulled off the trick. There was a trap door under the stage with a duplicate of the French bank vault. The con really happened months in advance in Paris. They previously tricked the Frenchman to sign a card, and intercepted the bank truck and switched it with a stack of dummy cash made of magicians’ flash paper (which burns up leaving no ash). Then on the night of the performance, they simultaneously triggered the dummy cash.
The agents then find out the next planned performance will be in New Orleans so they book a flight there. Both the agents and Thaddeus attend the performance. The Four Horsemen again do a series of tricks including making a rabbit seem to disappear in a box (they use a simple angled mirror). Another trick was to hypnotize audience members who are told to turn into football players and tackle the person when they hear them say the trigger word “freeze”. At the finale, they invite Arthur Tressler on stage. He thinks they’re honoring him again, but they bring out an oversized check which reveals his bank balance of $144 million. Then they tell the audience that they know most everyone there was swindled by Tressler’s insurance company. They do a trick where after shining a light on Tressler’s giant check, the amount begins to reduce. They ask the audience to check their own balances electronically, and one by one, they start to exclaim their accounts grew bigger! Tressler realizes he has lost millions and when he starts to walk towards the four of them, he finds his ankle has been shackled to the stage. Just as the four magicians begin their getaway, Dylan rushes on stage to stop them and yells, “FREEZE,” before he gets tackled by the previously hypnotized group.
He then chases them through the streets of New Orleans following a signal from a device they know Daniel uses to track his own stage crew with. Dylan ends up running in circles when he realizes he’s been tricked, and the tracking device was in his own pocket the whole time.
Back at the agents’ rented apartment, Alma tells Dylan of her recent research on magicians. When he asks why she’s so interested in the history, Alma describes herself as a dreamer and tells him about a bridge in her town where people place locks on the bridge’s fence, make a wish, and then throw the key into the river. She goes on to say there’s supposedly a magicians’ secret society called “The Eye”. Alma also talks about a famous magician who Thaddeus defrauded and was so humiliated; he attempted an underwater safe stunt too dangerous and sadly never made it out. Strangely, they never found the body. Dylan dismisses the whole thing as he is a skeptic.
Tressler, wanting to get even with the Four Horsemen, later meets with Thaddeus and hires him to defraud them publicly. The agents and Thaddeus follow the Four Horsemen’s to their scheduled final event in New York.
They track down the group’s hiding place and head for their apartment. The other three leave Jack behind to tie up some loose ends while they prepare for their act. Dylan and another agent rush the apartment and Jack fights off the two using his sleight of hand tricks- he ties up one agent with his own jacket, and uses flash paper to temporarily blind Dylan while he throws cards at his to slow him down. Dylan chases Jack down a garbage chute where Jack takes off in a stolen FBI car. Alma pulls up to Dylan, and they continue to pursue Jack. The chase ends at a bridge where Jack’s cars flips over and catches on fire. Dylan tries to free Jack, but the flames are getting too high. Dylan gets pulled back by another Agent as the car blows up. Dylan is saddened about Jack, but is able to determine the Horsemen are targeting a certain safe.
Dylan gets a call from Thaddeus telling him that the real person in control at a magic show is the magician’s assistant- he asks Dylan, “Don’t you think it’s suspicious an Interpol agent just shows up out of nowhere?” Dylan is confused and is further upset when he learns another agency has taken the lead on the case.
When they head to the safe’s location, they find it missing- just a big empty white room. They are told the security team was given false orders by the Horsemen to move the safe. The agents are able to intercept the truck and believe they have the advantage now since the Horsemen won’t be expecting them. When they get to the final location, the safe turns out to be a fake filled with balloons.
That night, the final performance is being held at some old, abandoned warehouses. The new lead agent instructs all the agents to one side of the building. Alma urges Dylan to follow her instincts to the opposite rooftop. He goes against orders and follows her. We see the 3 remaining magicians’ giant holograms on the side of the building, hyping up the gathering cheering crowds. We then see the three on the same rooftop as Dylan and Alma. The three say their farewells to the crowds and run off the side- seeming to turn into piles of falling cash. The crowd roars in excitement as everyone is gathering all they can. Alma and Dylan look at each other as this appears to be the end of the case and kiss.
Back on the ground, Thaddeus is walking up to his SUV, when all the doors pop open overflowing with cash from the stolen safe.
In a small isolated jail cell, Dylan and some guards walk up to Thaddeus inside. Thaddeus says dryly, “I’ve been framed.” The guards open the cell. Dylan walks in and tells them, “I’ve got it from here.” They guards lock the cell and leave the area. Thaddeus tries a plea bargain with him. Dylan says Thaddeus is out of tricks, but to humor him, he listens to Thaddeus anyway.
Thaddeus then explains how the Horsemen pulled off the safe heist. After the agents saw the empty room and left, the magicians returned to open the safe. Similar to the rabbit trick, the safe was never removed- they used a giant angled mirror to make the room appear empty.
Thaddeus then tells Dylan that Jack’s car accident was probably staged by switching a similar rigged car with a cadaver dummy inside. The car was mounted on a bus driven by magicians, in front of Dylan. They were able to get away unnoticed after the explosion.
Thaddeus goes on to say the only thing he can’t figure out is who brought the Four Horsemen together. The camera pans in closer to Thaddeus’ face as he stares out one side of the locked cell. We then see Dylan standing on the outside of the cell again. Thaddeus figures out that it was Dylan. The scene flashes back, and we see Dylan as the hooded figure in each of the introductory scenes. Dylan says he didn’t do it for the money; he did it to watch Thaddeus rot in jail.
We then see the three magicians walk up to a locked park gate. They hear a familiar voice telling them that nothing is ever really locked- it’s Jack walking from the other side. After Jack lets them in, they use their invitation cards to activate the entrance to the magicians’ secret society, “The Eye”. At the door to welcome them, is Dylan. They are all in disbelief it was him the whole time. He tells Daniel, “Remember when you told me to always be the smartest person in the room? I agree with that.” They are then ecstatic as they walk into the room.
Months later, with Alma back in France on the bridge she spoke about earlier, we see Dylan walk up to her and smile. She says, “You were the magician’s son”. Dylan said that after the accident, he took on a new persona to avenge his father. He targeted Tressler’s insurance company and the French bank because they both denied his family any benefits after the accident. He then asks Alma if she’s going to arrest him. She laughs and says he knows she’s always been the dreamer type. He then places a lock on the fence, and they throw the key into the river. We watch the key fall into the water below.
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