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Woody Harrelson, who plays hypnotist joker Merritt McKinney in Now You See Me 2, coins a new phrase in the middle of the flashy sequel to the 2013 hit: "A sack full of nada."

And that, in a nutshell, is what this globe-hopping caper starring a team of magician thieves is.

Sure, the magic arts are all about misdirection and trickery. But the best illusionists make their audiences feel like they've just witnessed something substantive - the impossible, art and alchemy combined.

In Now You See Me 2, audiences can witness plenty of whooshing visual effects - a playing card that goes zigzagging around a room, raindrops that stop in midair and fly back up to the sky, bodies that poof! and disappear - but they're the work of animators and compositors, rotoscopers and digital artists. It's the magic of movies, not a movie that comes close to achieving real magic.

Now You See Me 2 starts in 1982, in New Jersey - with a boy, his beloved escape-artist dad, and a big safe dropped into a river.

The whats and wherefores of this prologue are explained soon enough. Morgan Freeman's Thaddeus Bradley, a debunker of magic who played a pivotal role in the first film and is now doing time behind bars, has a few things to say, and then director Jon M. Chu's camera finds Jesse Eisenberg's J. Daniel Atlas, cloaked in a hoodie on a dark, lonely street, descending into the sewers of New York.

No, he is not looking for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Instead, he's waiting for news from a secret society called the Eye, to find out what his next assignment might be.

He returns to his apartment to encounter the stalker-ish Lula (Lizzy Caplan, from Showtime's Masters of Sex), a stranger who knows all about Atlas and who displays some impressive hocus-pocus chops of her own, thus qualifying her to fill the slot left by the original film's Isla Fisher (reportedly unable to do the sequel because she was pregnant).

Lula becomes "the girl Horseman" - the other Horsemen being Atlas, McKinney, and the master pickpocket and cardsharp Jack Wilder (Dave Franco).

And so, like Ethan Hunt's Impossible Missions gang, the Four Horsemen are off and running (galloping?) on a head-spinning, plot-thickening adventure.

This one involves Walter Mabry (a seriously bearded Daniel Radcliffe), a duplicitous tech entrepreneur and magic fan who orchestrates the elaborate abduction of the Horsemen. Presto change-o, everyone's in Macau.

Our heroes, aided by FBI guy and closet illusionist Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), must extricate themselves from Mabry's clutches, learn a few things from a Mandarin-speaking magic-shop proprietress, and also put on a big New Year's Eve show in London, so millions of fans can ooh and aah.

Director Chu, veteran of a pair of Step Up dance movies and two Justin Bieber documentaries, knows how to create a zoomy sense of movement. Now You See Them 2 has plenty of energy, and plenty of what-just-happened? twists. (Too many - try to make sense of 'em all.)

What it doesn't have is any kind of real magic.

srea@phillynews.com
215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea

Now You See Me 2
Directed by Jon M. Chu. With Lizzy Caplan, Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mark Ruffalo. Distributed by Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.