D: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa / 105m
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez, BD Wong, Robert Taylor, Brennan Brown, Dotan Bonen
Longtime conman Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) meets inexperienced grifter Jess (Robbie) and despite his initial misgivings, agrees to tutor her in the ways of becoming a real con artist. He takes her to New Orleans where he involves her in a series of minor cons such as pickpocketing. He introduces her to his crew as they prepare to hit the town during the Superbowl weekend. Altogether they amass $1.2 million from their efforts, but Nicky takes Jess to the Superbowl game where he’s challenged by compulsive gambler Liyuan Tse (Wong). The bets grow bigger until Nicky loses the money he and his crew have gained. He gets Liyuan to go for double or nothing and loses again. It’s only on when the stakes reach an even higher level that Jess realises it’s all a con designed to part Liyuan from his money.
With their relationship becoming romantic, Nicky’s reservations about becoming involved with a fellow con artist lead him to pay off Jess and leave her in New Orleans. Three years pass. Nicky is in Buenos Aires working a sting on local businessman and racing car team owner Garriga (Santoro) when he discovers that Jess is Garriga’s girlfriend. His feelings for her resurface, making it difficult for him to continue with the sting. He tries to pursue her at the same time, but Jess is reluctant to get involved with him a second time. Garriga’s head of security, Owens (McRaney) is suspicious of what Nicky is actually up to, and when he and Garriga become aware of the true sting, they grab Nicky and Jess as they try to leave town. Taken to an abandoned warehouse, Nicky has to find a way to keep both of them alive.
Will Smith’s recent big screen appearances – the dreadful After Earth (2013), and cameos in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) and Winter’s Tale (2014) – have been less than overwhelming, so it’s no surprise that he’s returned with a role that allows him to express the kind of genial, roguish charm that he’s more renowned for. However, thanks to a script by directors Ficarra and Requa that never quite works out what type of movie it is, Focus allows Smith only occasional chances to shine, and in the end, leaves him as stranded as Jess is in New Orleans. At one point, Nicky says that he can convince anyone of anything, but in practice he never convinces the viewer that his feelings for Jess are real, or even that he’s as good a conman as he makes out.
Away from Smith’s painful attempts at looking lovelorn, we have a movie that struggles to add any thrills to proceedings and only really comes alive thanks to Wong’s involvement at the Superbowl game; his extrovert performance is the movie’s one highlight. Afterwards it’s all downhill with a less than convoluted con game that steals shamelessly from The Sting (1974) and asks us to take such a leap of faith in terms of what happens to Nicky that most viewers will be picking their jaws up off the floor in stunned disbelief (or amusement). Slackly directed, and with a supporting cast reduced to mouthing platitudes, Focus won’t hang around long in the memory, and proves another stumbling block in Smith’s return to the A-list.
Rating: 5/10 – good location photography and a glossy sheen to things lift Focus out of the doldrums, and the pickpocket sequences – overseen by Apollo Robbins – are cleverly constructed and edited; with Robbie adrift in a sea of watered-down machismo, however, this is not a movie that serves its cast particularly well and is worryingly predictable.