Sometimes in a film, particularly when it’s about con artists and heists a case of less is more is a better approach. Focus manages to start off interesting but ends up becoming a little too convoluted and confusing along the way. Providing us of too much of some things and not enough of others.
Nicky (Will Smith) is a veteran con-man and thief, he’s got his eyes on Jess (Margot Robbie) when he notices her pick-pocketing watches at a hotel bar. Jess pleads with Nicky to teach her his ways in an attempt to potentially score bigger so Nicky recruits her into his team. As it turns out he’s got around 30 or so people with varying skills and tricks that they use to fleece the unsuspecting punters attending an American football championship game final being held in New Orleans. Three years later Nicky shows up in Buenos Aires and is working for Formula One racing mogul Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) but to throw a spanner in the works Jess is hanging off Garriga’s arm and is none too pleased about the fact that Nicky ditched her after the New Orleans score. The big question is, who is playing whom in this game of deception.
If you’ve seen movies like Ocean’s Eleven or the more recent Now You See Me, the art of conning and swindling is a beautiful combination of emotional manipulation and physical deception. We as the audience are often made privy to what is happening whilst the characters onscreen are not. The first scene where we see this happen is an intimate one-on-one lesson between Nicky and Jess as he teaches her the art of distracting the mark. The second is a much grander scale where Nicky’s team employs all their tactics to rob a street’s worth of punters of their small wares like wallets and watches and jewelry. But what we really want to see is the big risk taking score. Weirdly though it’s the nail biting showdown between Nicky and Liyuan (BD Wong) over a multi-million dollar bet that happens about half-way into the film and not the scam he’s playing against Garriga in the final act that was the real show stealer. I don’t want to spoil too much of the great trickery that’s shown onscreen, hell they even employed a “con artist adviser/pickpocket design” to work on the film (his name’s Apollo Robbins) so it’s a visual treat to watch.
The good looks don’t end there either, our two leads are both in fair to fantastic form. Will Smith still has the moves but he is completely outshined by his costar Margot Robbie. Annoyingly Robbie’s character barely gets any real backstory but she manages to overcome this by showing development starting off as the eager young student wanting to learn from the master and then soon becoming just as good a player at the game as the big boys by the close of the film. Robbie is also disarmingly attractive in an attainable way, she’s not quite the ultimate blonde bombshell, since she still manages to feel relatable. Smith’s portrayal is commendable but he seems to toe the line of all his character’s traits, never leaning too far into any one trope. He wheels out a backstory about his childhood that you’re not sure whether it’s true because you don’t know whether any of what he says or does is true because in short, he’s a con-man. There are the odd comedic moments, and it’s nice to see Smith pull those off because his timing is still on point. But seeing him fall for his protégé didn’t seem believable, and even less credible was how he seemed to be genuinely distracted by her. The script and the film works well, right up until the end of the New Orleans swindle and from that point forward seems to lose traction due to over-complicating what thievery is actually taking place. Director/writing team Glen Ficarra and John Requa (both from Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Phillip Morris fame) don’t seem to quite nail it down.
The end result of Focus is that we end up with a film that is alright but somehow doesn’t manage to rise above and shine. It’s fun but it’s not as entertaining as other con/heist/trickery films that have come before it. I also need to deduct points to the casually racist jab at Australians Nicky makes at one moment in the film, some might find it funny (or ironic thanks to two of his costars being Australian) but for some reason I just felt it only served to entrench even more stereotypes. All in all it’s a film about high stakes that doesn’t quite feel like the stakes are that high.
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 105 minutes
Focus is released nationally on the 5th March 2015 through Roadshow Films