An ultra-smooth career con-man finds himself becoming compromised when he falls for a beautiful protege in the clever heist drama, Focus.
When we last saw superstar Will Smith’s name above the title, the results were less than inspiring. Smith crashed and burned in the sci-fi drama, After Earth. Suffice to say, Smith’s latest effort is not a total return to form but features enough elements that will satisfy his core fans as well as bring back some who feared that his days as an actor who could carry a movie were a thing of the past.
Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) is a seasoned con-man, who is the head of a 30-man crew. While working on his latest con during Mardi Gras, he spots a beautiful young wannabe, Jess (Margot Robbie) who desperately wants to get in the game. After cajoling Nicky, he decides to give her a chance and her audition in New Orleans’ French Quarter blows him away. One can’t tell what impressed him more, Jess’ sex appeal or her ability to learn and adapt so effortlessly on the fly.
Soon the two are partners in crime and in love as Nicky continues to groom his latest find. But their friendship is put to the test when a leisurely game of playful wagering erupts into a high-stakes million dollar game of chicken. Not content to back down to a rich powerful Asian gambler, Liyuan (BD Wong), Nicky puts it all on the line and, in the process, drags Jess into a situation that rapidly twists out of control. Leaving Jess in the lurch, Nicky chooses his head over his heart, damaging Jess’ heart in the process.
Several years later, Nicky is working his magic again in Buenos Aires as he is hired by a billionaire international race car owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), looking for an edge over one of his chief rivals and overly suspicious bodyguard, Owens (Gerald McRaney). But as soon as Nicky is set to spring the trap, fate steps in once again in the form of the beautiful Jess and her appearance unsettles our “smooth operator.” This time around will Nicky once again choose his head or his heart?
If there is one thing that we have learned from watching successful heist movies, it is that it’s not just the crime but the execution that is the key ingredient of a winning story. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Focus is a return to their roots telling stories of con-men. Their directorial debut, I Love You Phillip Morris, traced the life of another real-life con-man Steven Russell, and Smith channels many of the elements of that character into Nicky.
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Smith’s path has been well-documented and it was also refreshing to see him play the type of character that many of his fans prefer. Smart, cocky and full of swag, Nicky is a man in control. As he unspools his past experiences in the game to Jess, we see his cool veneer slowly begin to melt under her lovely gaze. It is in these intimate moments that we see Nicky the loner having difficulty of holding it together. Jess is seductive and dangerous and their pairing is sexy and explosive. While their chemistry is undeniable and the film locales are beautiful, Ficarra and Requa have a huge challenge trying to introduce a fresh element into a well-worn genre.
Injecting elements from films such as The Thomas Crown Affair and The Sting, Ficarra and Requa also create a seductive mood borrowing from stories such as Out of Sight and Now You See Me for an intoxicating brew. Although the story is populated with plenty of pretty people, locations and toys, at its core, there is loneliness. Much like Robert DeNiro’s character in Heat, Nicky is not afraid to leave everything behind in the snap of finger to prove to himself that he is not soft and that he is always in control.
Anchored by a comeback performance from Smith, who uncharacteristically has two films this year, now older and wiser as well as confident in his abilities as an actor, he turns the clock back a decade giving his best performance since 2005’s Hitch. Not to be outdone, British beauty Robbie’s star continues to shine. After convincing roles in Wolf of Wall Street and About Time, Robbie’s work opposite Smith is sure to pay dividends for the talented actress. Even though Focus is not a slam dunk, it is a welcome return for Big Will and an interesting cinematic sleight-of-hand that should perform adequately at the box office.