Will Smith has become a rather frustrating actor. When he was just a pop-rapper and a sitcom star, it was a revelation just how well he took to the big screen. Seriously, if you haven’t watched Independence Day or Men In Black in a while, they’re probably even better than you remember. They’re just so much fun. Yeah, it wasn’t exactly doing Stanislavski or the Method, but the guy was just magnetic on screen. And he could always act, even as far back as 1993’s Six Degrees Of Separation.
However since Michael Mann’s Ali, which was meant to be his big Oscar-bait, ‘proper’ acting debut, didn’t really set the world on fire, he’s seemed to just be treading water. He either put in surprisingly good turns in average popcorn films like I, Robot or I Am Legend, or focused his attention on wishy-washy Hallmark pap like Seven Pounds or The Pursuit Of Happyness. He turned down Django Unchained to do After Earth, for heaven’s sake. Where’s his Wolf Of Wall Street or Dallas Buyer’s Club, now he’s deep in his 40s?
Focus is exactly the sort of average, perfectly enjoyable film that Smith seems to be determined to waste his career making. There’s nothing wrong with Focus. It’s a perfectly fine conman movie that breezes along but offers nothing you didn’t get in The Sting, The Grifters or Catch Me iI You Can. Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a master con who’s running an audacious series of stings around the Superbowl in New Orleans. Aspiring pickpocket Jess (The Wolf Of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie) wants in, and eventually worms her way into Nicky’s team, and then into his bedroom. Nicky however puts the con over her and abruptly breaks things off – until their paths cross again three years later when he’s trying to scam an Argentina race car magnate (300’s Rodrigo Santoro), and they reconvene for more sassiness, stealing and sharp one-liners.
Smith and Robbie carry the film well, and it’s all glossy fun, but it just adds up to nothing. The producers have made a lot of supposedly accurately portraying the world of thieves, and there’s a lot Casino/Goodfellas-style montages showing how the game all works, but none of it feels real.
Nicky commands a cartoonish superteam of, like, 30 crazy talent master thieves, filled sexy model-looking types and recognisable character actors (including Adrian Martinez and the guy from the old Orange Wednesday ads). Pivotal cons don’t really add up when they’re explained, and seem to rely on far too many coincidences. Everyone’s conning everyone, which actually makes the twists pretty easy to spot. The time jump in the middle makes the film feel disjointed and unsatisfying. And it kind of just ends, and doesn’t really resolve the central love story. There’s a lot of filmmaking trickery, but just because you keep playing the Rolling Stones, it doesn’t make you Martin Scorsese.
The one major highlight though is Margot Robbie. She gives the sort of performance that shows she might actually become a proper star here. In Wolf Of Wall Street, she was cast as the trophy wife, and as such didn’t have to do much than look pretty. Here however, she’s snappy and funny and gives Will Smith as good as she gets. She’s a delight to watch, and makes you think she might end up being an Anna Kendrick instead of the Megan Fox I had previous pegged her as. I’m not sure if she can capital-A ‘act’ yet, but she’s definitely a movie star.
Overall, Focus is fine. It can’t decide if it wants to be a realistic-ish depiction of the criminal underworld, or a sassy screwball comedy throwback. Ultimately it fails at both, and ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Those individual parts are some pretty enjoyable junk food though.
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