An engrossing, if limited superhero origin story.
It’s hard to make a truly good movie about magicians, since, like con men, the whole allure of their trade is the secrecy and truth behind their tricks. To offer a peek behind the curtain then can often take away from the value of what it is they do to their audiences. So it should be said up front that Sleight is probably the coolest movie about magicians since Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, though that’s not really saying much. More patient and less silly than either of the Now You See Me movies, but less psychological or unpredictable as The Prestige, Sleight makes for an interesting introduction to its creative team, despite it’s sometimes limited or unsatisfying payoffs.
Directed by newcomer J.D. Dillard and based on a screenplay co-written by he and Alex Theurer, Sleight is the newest low-budget genre thriller to be released by Jason Blum and Blumhouse, with help surprisingly enough from WWE Studios. It’s not hard to see why the studio picked up Sleight following its Sundance premiere in 2016 either, considering how unashamedly the film wears its influences and genre leanings on its sleeve. Like so many of the genre’s other notable titles too, it shines the most whenever it decides to lean just a little bit further into them.
On the surface, Sleight tells the story of Bo (Jacob Latimore), a struggling daytime street magician who makes extra money on the side by selling drugs at night for local contacts and dealers. With more responsibility than a kid his age should ever have, Bo is working tirelessly to keep a roof over he and his little sister’s heads. But when one of Bo’s drug dealer bosses (Dule Hill) starts asking more of him than he’d like, Bo is put into a situation that leaves the fate of he and the ones he love hanging in the balance.
From the first time we see Bo, as he performs one of his logic-defying magic tricks on an LA street corner, to when the film reaches its conclusion, Sleight looks and feels about as cool as possible. J.D. Dillard proves himself to be a competent stylist with his feature debut here, directing both the high stakes effects sequences and the intimate conversational moments with the same level of visual flare. As a result, Sleight has a consistent slow-burn pace that it maintains fairly well throughout, until the final 20 minutes or so, when the viewer will likely begin to feel the clock ticking and wish Bo would just hurry things up.
Yet, the fact that most of the drama in Sleight still feels realistic and relatable (for the most part), comes down to the performances of its actors. Particularly Jacob Latimore (The Maze Runner, Collateral Beauty), who proves once again just how charismatic and talented of a performer he is, carrying off both the more ridiculous and darker moments of the film with an equal amount of dedication and seriousness. So when Bo starts using an electric conductor, implanted crudely into the shoulder of his arm, to levitate things in his act neither the film nor Latimore play it off as a form of self-mutilation or a reason for pity. Instead, Bo wears it like a badge of honor; a necessary amount of pain, he claims, all done in the service of his work and the craft of magic.
Having said that, where Bo is treated with a very high level of respect, most of the film’s other characters don’t fare nearly as well. While Holly makes for a relatable romantic lead for Bo, and Seychelle Gabriel does well with the material she’s given, the character eventually devolves into little more than a pawn in the film’s plot; she sometimes throws out what legitimate intelligence she’s demonstrated previously in order just to help Bo get out of a pinch. The same can be said for a majority of the other supporting characters, most of whom are hardly fleshed out, and merely feel like caricatures meant to come in and out whenever the plot calls.
But the biggest problems with Sleight become frustratingly evident in the film’s final act, when Bo makes increasingly riskier decisions, and finds himself in worse situations that will end with undeniable consequences. Except then the film just kind of ends, without ever addressing some of the things he does leading up to the final confrontation with his former boss-turned-enemy. It’s unsatisfying on a number of levels, especially when the film decides to take unnecessary detours along the way.
Fortunately, both Dillard and Theurer realize that the film’s deliberate, slow burn pacing can only work if they find a way to deliver in the climax, and luckily, Sleight delivers. Like a magician setting up his final trick, the film gives enough time to appropriately set up the dramatic weight and emotions behind Bo’s final fight, and it’s bloodier and more raw than anything in most superhero films nowadays. It elevates Sleight into being something more than just your typical, boring street drama into something at least, slightly more memorable.