Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is a smooth-talking professional conman who takes a hopeful apprentice, Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) under his wing. After showing promise and learning the art of the game quickly, Nicky accepts her into his team. Nicky’s most dangerous scheme awaits him, though, when he gets involved with a billionaire race car owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a plan that will put allegiances to the test.
Between his nepotism with Jaden (who’s not so much like father/like son when it comes to acting) in the business, a string of lackluster films, turning down the title role in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (a choice I’m sure he regrets) for selfish and egotistical reasons, and the controversy surrounding photos of his teen daughter in bed with a man that looked 4xs her age, it hasn’t been the best five or so years for Will Smith. Even an idiot knows Smith stands the most to lose with Focus as far as viewers still giving him the benefit of the doubt is concerned. Thankfully, though a flawed movie, Focus features an incredibly charming performance from Smith, who proves he can still deliver when he’s on his game.
Focus is the type of slick and stylish con film you might expect from Steven Soderbergh that is perfectly suited for an onscreen presence such as Smith. Consider this Hitch for con artists, and for two-thirds of the film, it’s solid entertainment. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who directed 2011’s Crazy Stupid Love, liven up their film with snappy banter between Smith and Margot Robbie, and some fun heist setpieces. The Superdome segment, in particular, is a ton of fun, offering both suspense and laughs as Smith and his gambling habits square off against a wealthy high roller (a fun extended cameo from BD Wong).
However, once the final third rolls around the film begins to run out of gas. Ficarra and Requa ran into a similar problem with Crazy Stupid Love, which featured an excellent cast, and was witty fun for the first two acts but then fell apart at the end by devolving into the cliche public declaration of love moment that manages to reunite all the primary characters together. The Superdome segment exposed Nicky’s gambling addiction which could’ve added an intriguing arc to the character, as well as an ironic twist to someone who preaches composure and focus to Jess. But although the gambling duel is great, Ficarra and Requa only scratch the surface of Nicky’s flaws, and once the film rolls into Buenos Aires, it’s as if they ran out of ideas and just decided to shoehorn twist after twist into the remainder of their film.
The final third isn’t entirely a waste. Gerald McRaney gets to sink his teeth into some cutthroat dialogue as Rodrigo Santoro’s henchman and Adrian Martinez provides some comic relief as Smith’s longtime partner in crime. If only the film didn’t conclude itself so sloppily (which includes a flimsy exit to Santoro’s character), this would’ve been a better film.
Still, if there’s any consistency here it’s the great chemistry between Smith and Robbie. It seems like forever that we’ve seen Smith bring his A-game. Seven Pounds, his last good film, was seven years ago. Just prior was the disappointing Hancock and following it was the mediocre Men in Black 3 and After Earth, and an awfully miscast turn as the Devil in Winter’s Tale. Focus is Smith back comfortably in trademark Smith mode. His character isn’t as fleshed out as it could’ve been, but he more than makes up for it with his performance, mixing cool confidence with reckless vulnerability.
As for Robbie, it’s safe to say she’s the real deal, following up the work she did in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, where she handled the difficult task of going up against DiCaprio, by going up against another Oscar-level actor. You don’t need 20/20 vision to know just how stunningly gorgeous she is, but she’s more than just extremely photogenic eye candy. She’s got the talent to be a star, if she’s not one already, bringing charm, comic chops and a feisty attitude that puts her on level playing field with a veteran screen actor like Smith.
Focus has all the style and pizazz viewers look for in a heist film, but despite the first two solid acts, it falls apart in the third by way of the many needless twists and turns that will elicit eye rolls more than surprise. Still, the film gets by thanks mainly to the on-fire chemistry between Will Smith and Margot Robbie. While it definitely won’t go down as one of Smith’s most memorable films, it is the most charismatic he’s been onscreen in years. After turning in a couple forgettable efforts, Focus is at least a step back in the right direction for him.
I give Focus a B- (★★★).