Will Smith’s greatest strength as a movie star has always been his consummate charm, even if it did fail him in his last starring role, in the deathly dull sci-fi stinker After Earth. Thankfully, Big Willie brings his A-game to Focus, a glossy, slick con movie that coasts along nicely for the most part, until its final act when logic is stretched to breaking point and the film stops being fun.
The action is centered on master con artist Nicky (Smith), and sexy blonde Jess (Margot Robbie) who begs him to take her under his wing after she clumsily tries to rob him. He recruits her in his team of highly skilled thieves, teaching her how to swipe wallets and pinch purses with the ease of a pro.
Directors Glen Ficarra and John Requa (who also wrote the script) keep the tone breezy and light as Nicky teaches Jess the art of the con, and ends up falling for her. It’s never fully clear what their respective motives are, and that’s part of what keeps the film interesting – is he conning her, is she conning him, are they both conning each other?
It’s also very clever at times, because it genuinely surprises you in places where you expect the usual clichés of the genre. One elaborate set piece that unfolds in a private seating block during a Superbowl-like football match in New Orleans delivers nail-biting tension and then a superb payoff.
Smith and Robbie have terrific chemistry; she’s almost as charming as him, and appears to have a natural gift for comedy. But their relationship is sadly underdeveloped. As a romance between two con artistes who can’t fully trust each other, the film feels half-baked. The script further slips in the second half, when the drama moves to Buenos Aires a few years later, where Nicky is working a scam.
By this point, the filmmakers are stacking up twist after twist, and the snappy tone of the film becomes darker and heavier as the stakes are raised. I found the final twist too far-fetched even for a con film, and I came away wishing that they’d retained the lighthearted touch of the early portions.
Still, I’m going with three out of five for Focus. Will Smith seems to be having a good time, and for a large part of the film you do too.