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'The Prestige' Tempts Film Fans with Fresh Tricks

When the movie The Illusionist premiered this summer, it took audiences by surprise with its early 20th-century magic act. Now comes The Prestige, which deals with similar subject matter, and has A-list stars, a better-known director and a bigger budget. So with all those bells and whistles, is it magical?

Well, first, a digression. About a year ago, I was invited up on stage to watch Ricky Jay, the world's most amazing card shark -- I think the actual word is prestidigitator -- spend a few minutes turning threes into queens and making aces rise up out of a deck, and generally doing things way too cool to be possible.

I sat at his elbow, and never blinked, and concentrated like crazy and decided after a while that the molecules in the card faces must be rearranging themselves.

So it was fun to see him at the very beginning of The Prestige, playing a bit part as a BAD magician. He's got a manager (Michael Caine) who defends him, and two assistants who don't think he's very good.

As magician wanna-bes these assistants -- played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman -- are naturally competitive. And when tragedy strikes the act they're helping with, they become enemies, too.

Soon they're calling themselves The Professor and the Great Danton, rival magicians on stages across the street from each other.

They sneak in disguise to spy on what the other is doing; they sabotage tricks, and steal them when they can.

One trick that The Professor develops is called "The Transported Man." In it, the magician travels from one side of the stage to the other in a split second. It's pretty fabulous, and The Great Danton can only figure one way to do it, and that pretty clearly isn't how The Professor is doing it, so he sends his beautiful assistant, played by Scarlett Johansson, to see if she can squirrel it out of him.

That's all I can reasonably say about the plot, this being what you might call a magical mystery tour of subterfuge.

Suffice it to say that Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who burst on the scene with Memento, that murder mystery that moved backwards in time, are up to some new tricks in The Prestige.

These brothers aren't interested solely in illusion. They're also playing games with science -- this being an age when electricity was considered mysterious -- and generally crossing up audience expectations, and then double-crossing them.

The film is never less than engaging, though considering that the title The Prestige refers to the moment in a magic act that gives it its "wow" factor, it's kind of a shame that the ultimate "reveal" in the movie is a little too tricky for its own good.

But then, I say that as someone so clueless about magic that the only explanation I can come up with for a real-life card trick is that the card-face molecules must be rearranging themselves.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.