Never Drop The Con.
Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), Focus sees Will Smith — in his first R-rated film since Bad Boys II (2003) — star alongside Margot Robbie in this overly slick yet sophisticated heist picture, where the stakes are constantly raised and the con’s, deception and double-crossing never stops. Focus essentially explores the complex notion of trust versus deceit, ‘focusing’ on a con artist who must use his particular set of skills to gain someone’s confidence and trust, ultimately going against his very nature.
Will Smith plays Nicky, a smooth, cool, seasoned master of misdirection — aka a con man — who becomes involved with the gorgeous Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), a novice looking to get in on the con game. As Nicky educates Jess in the ‘tricks of the trade,’ she begins to get a little ‘too close’ — showing signs of affection towards her mentor — leaving Nicky no other choice but to abruptly break off their ‘partnership.’ Fast-forward three years, and Nicky’s former flame Jess — now an accomplished femme fatale — shows up at Buenos Aires in the midst of Nicky’s latest, incredibly risky scheme, taking place within a high stakes racecar circuit. Now, working for dangerous millionaire Spanish racecar team owner, Rafael Garríga (Rodrigo Santoro), the veteran con man finds himself losing ‘focus’, as Jess’ startling return throws the skilled Nicky off his A-game.
Beautifully photographed by director of photography Xavier Grobet, Enough Said (2013), Focus takes its masterful con artists from the snowy landscapes of New York to the sun-drenched streets of New Orleans, and then to one of South America’s most exquisite cities, Buenos Aires. Toss in a football championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the exceedingly competitive world of motorsport, and you’ve got yourself a winning formula for high-octane action, intrigue and romance … or so it seems. Mildly enjoyable for the most part, the main setback with Focus is in its narrative structure. Overstuffed with unexpected twists and turns — some of which are highly implausible — the film’s final con becomes its biggest stumbling block, demeaning some of the great character work done by the actors, and muddling prior motives and story framework to the point of stupidity. Quite simply, the flick’s ending totally lost me.
It’s a shame Focus falls flat by the end of its third act, given the feature’s solid performances and memorable players. Will Smith slips comfortably into the shoes of the charming Nicky, an expert jack-of-all-trades in the trickery game, growing up in a world of dishonesty. Margot Robbie — the Australian stunner who made waves after playing Naomi Lapaglia in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) — is the perfect little Energizer Bunny, playing Jess, a sexy young woman with flirty blonde locks, who’s intelligent and driven; this Aussie bombshell’s certainly got the equipment to dazzle. As an on-screen duo, Smith and Robbie have all the right moves, and the pair’s chemistry simply oozes with sensuality and charisma, being one of the film’s strongest assets. Other noteworthy characters include, eccentric, compulsive gambler, Liyuan Tse, played by B.D. Wong, Jurassic Park (1993), injecting Focus with the right amount of stamina in his short lived scene, while the distrustful head of Garríga’s security entourage, Owens — assigned the difficult task of outsmarting seasoned con man Nicky — is brilliantly portrayed by Gerald McRaney, The Best of Me (2014), implanting a serious threat into the sometimes flat, overly romanticized storyline.
Centered on and around thievery, Focus almost glamorizes the shady world of pickpockets, crooks and con artists; we are presented with a scene in New Orleans where an abundance of cash, watches, jewellery, electronics, and much more become easy pickings for our sleight-of-hand maneuvering ‘heroes,’ schooled in the art of exploitation — with victims most notably being ordinary unsuspecting working class people. Truth be told, there’s nothing overly ‘cool’ or desirable about stealing the hard earned money or belongings of others, and therefore often found it tough to empathize with, or relate to, many of the film’s characters, somewhat hindering my overall enjoyment of the picture.
Exotic landscapes, lavish sets and stylish cinematography, along with Elizabeth Mickle’s, Drive (2011), vibrant production design — evoking a playful, magical environment — and a vivid colour palette, inducing a fitting tone — to some extent reflecting the protagonist’s arc at each stage of the story — Focus looks wonderful. In terms of narrative, however, the film winds up missing the mark, falling into the ‘forgetful’ category of recent smoke-and-mirror flicks: remember Now You See Me (2013)? I sure as heck don’t. With a tagline reading, ‘Never Lose Focus,’ this film more-or-less loses both its focus and footing, which is quite disappointing, given its apt writer-director team and strong talented cast.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner
Focus is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia