About as far from Ocean’s Eleven as you can get while still being pushed right up against it, Focus is the brand new Will Smith movie following an enigmatic conman as he tries to take down marks, score big, and win the heart of his attractive protégée; it’s clever, it’s enjoyable, it’s well shot, and delivers everything you’d ask a film about con artists to deliver, but it’s ultimately pretty forgettable.
Smith stars as longtime con artist Nicky, and bumps into small-time con-woman Jess (Margot Robbie, The Wolf Of Wall Street), and quickly takes the inexperienced street hustler under his wing; showing her the ropes, helping her perfect the small-time, small-money, hustles she never quite mastered; and quickly delving into a relationship far closer than that of a mentor/protégée.
Yet following their together at the Super Bowl (a prime target for easy marks), Nicky, Jess, and the rest of Nicky’s team go their separate ways and the main focus of the tale actually picks up several years later; when Nicky and Jess bump into one another again, threatening to derail Nicky’s latest con (a scheme involving formula one racers, and the major money involved with the sport).
It’s surprising Smith has never played a con man before (Hitch doesn’t count, unless you want to be really finnicky), as he’s clearly more than charismatic enough, undeniably cool, and totally believable as not only the mentor, the sneak thief, the slight-of-hand wizard, and the master of manipulation, but does a fantastic job of playing the bastard; there’s one or two key scenes in which Smith’s character delivers a full U-turn and shows he not a nice fella at all, and while you still like and respect him, there’s no denying he’s a real piece of work (an interesting new addition to Smith’s repertoire). Yet the key to Smith’s success here (as with many of his other roles) is not only his clear charisma, but the chemistry he seems to find with everyone he works with; delivering quick-talking and natural interactions with members of his team, F1 security bod Ownes (Gerald McRaney, House of Cards), and most importantly Margot Robbie.
Robbie and Smith ooze chemistry. They’re the perfect onscreen couple, work fantastically well together; as both look like they’re having fun, are both supremely likeable, and could both believably convince anyone to do anything they wanted; whilst also appearing a perfect fit for one another. Making the back and forth, will they/won’t they, is his/her love real/simply a con dynamic not only believable, but engaging, and the real driving force behind the film.
Though Focus does suffer from a heavy reliance on Nicky and Jess’ relationship, as while most con artist movies follow a team planning their biggest ever heist and taking down a suitably impressive score, Focus almost uses the con(s) as a backdrop to prop up a Nicky and Jess story; there may be a long con in the works, but the audience is kept largely in the dark about what it is, and simply spend the time pondering over the will they/won’t they pull of the two leads.
Still, this doesn’t seem to matter to much. There’s con, upon con, upon con, happening within the realms of Focus, and while you may end up a little confused as to who did what, who meant what, who was he, and why did that happen at the end, it’s always enjoyable; thanks not only to fairly brisk pacing, picturesque settings, and fantastic lighting, but the sheer watchability and talent of our two leads.
Robbie delivers the best performance of her short but skyrocketing career as Jess, and while the trailer, dresses, and bikini, may sell her as nothing but “the hot-girl”, she manages to prove there’s far more to her here; not only convincing as the small-time street lass, the hopeless romantic, and conniving she-devil, but showing true vulnerability and an incredible injection of real emotion when the need arises.
They’re also backed up by a handful of lesser known, but well placed, actors who fill out all of their roles rather well; from Rodrigo Santoro’s (300) turns as the cocky F1 boss, to the simple con man played by EE/Orange Wednesdays advert man Brennan Brown, funnyman/con artist Farhad (Adrian Martinez, American Hustle) and Gerald McRaney’s showing as one of the film’s best characters (including a rant about his distain for the Twitter/panini generation).
So it’s certainly enjoyable, well shot, well acted, and not only a nice change from the recent spate of awards-bait/horror tat, but also different to classic con movies such as Ocean’s Eleven; the only problem being, with an over reliance on the romantic angle, and lack of a “big score” it’s far less memorable than its peers. However, Smith and Robbie do carry the film into fun territory, give you a couple of leads worth watching (and looking at) and, with the help of the largely blistering pace, ensure you won’t be bored while watching. Sadly lacking in Focus, but still rather fun, Will Smith’s latest film is enjoyable, and his best film for years (following a spate of average-at-best fare like After Earth), but still ultimately forgettable.