Will Smith and Margot Robbie’s chemistry carries Focus.
If any part of Dane Cook’s 15 minutes of fame still resonates today it’s this little nugget: guys love heists. And, by extension, cons and elaborate setups. With that in mind we had high hopes for Focus, the latest Will Smith vehicle — and his first starring role since Men in Black 3. The former Fresh Prince is notoriously selective with his roles, having rarely been seen the last six-plus years, but he has always handled the “coolest guy in the room” persona with a deft touch.
With the film coming to Blu-ray and DVD on June 3rd it’s time to find out whether Smith made a wise choice starring in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s flashy piece of misdirection.
Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) has been in the con game a long time, and when neophyte swindler Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) tries — and fails — to pull one over on Smith, she asks him to mentor her. Nicky takes her under his wing and brings her to New Orleans to work the Super Bowl with his crew. As their professional relationship grows so does the personal one, until Nicky, who has been raised to believe “love will get you killed” in this game, unexpectedly pays Jess her share and leaves.
We pick things up three years later with Nicky, who claims to have burned through his money, in Buenos Aires to take a job for motorsport owner Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). He’s to pose as a disgruntled member of Garriga’s team and sell his competitors a bogus version of a formula they’ve created, which instead of speeding up the car, will instead slow it down.
Things get complicated when Nicky learns that Garriga is dating Jess, bringing the two of them back together. Jess’ presence brings up old feelings for Nicky and makes what should be a straightforward job very personal. Making matters worse, Owens (Gerald McRaney), Garriga’s head of security, is more than a little distrusting of Nicky. It all becomes a game of who’s conning who.
As mentioned, Smith has always played the effortlessly cool character with ease, and even at 46 has no trouble projecting the steadying presence of someone that was brought up in the con game. He and Robbie have good chemistry and play off of each other well, which is important given they’re not only the central dynamic but also that the film is selling their relationship as a stumbling block for Smith, who typically has all the angles covered.
With most of the film taking place in either New Orleans or Buenos Aires, Focus is visually pleasing and does a nice glamorizing the lifestyle — cool cars, lavish parties, expensive seats, etc. The manner in which the cons are executed are also a lot of fun, particularly the Mardi Gras scene that features the kind of in-depth choreography usually reserved for fight scenes (or, ya know, dance numbers).
While the movie doesn’t do much with the supporting cast, Adrian Martinez provides some moments of comic relief as Nicky’s buddy and cohort, and McRaney is spot on as the head of security.
Our biggest gripe with Focus is that the film itself is rather unfocused when it comes to figuring what kind of movie it wants to be. The charm of Smith and his chemistry with Robbie kept us invested the whole way, but the way it dips its toe in so many waters (comedy, drama, romance, etc.) can be a bit distracting. Much of the first act is essentially left behind, too, as for whatever reason Nicky shows up in Buenos Aires without any of his crew (one joins him later).
Twists, turns and double crosses are to be expected in this type of movie, but Ficarra and Requa throw them out there too often and with too little motivation. To Focus’ credit, you won’t see them all coming, which should be a good thing. Some of them feel cheap and done purely to keep the audience off balance, however, and eventually it all becomes convoluted.
There’s also the matter of the movie’s final act, which simply doesn’t mesh with everything you’ve been watching. It’s like after 90 minutes the directors decided to turn things over to Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino to handle the final 15. It’s weird and undercuts the fairly shallow, whimsical ride we’ve been taken on up to that point.
THE BONUS FEATURES
An alternate (and superior) opening and a handful of deleted and/or extended scenes highlight a solid array of additional content. The character studies aren’t really necessary — the film does a good job of focusing on the leads — but the one where Apollo Robbins, a “thief” turned consultant, breaks down some of the terminology and roles is pretty interesting.
While it’s not something that’ll resonate with you much beyond the credits, Focus is a decent concept elevated by the charisma and likeability of Smith and Robbie. If you’re a fan of Smith and like seeing him “out-slick” everyone else this is an easy movie to recommend.