Focus Review

Will Smith marks his return to leading man duties opposite Margot Robbie in slick con thriller Focus.

With only two major roles under his belt since 2008’s Seven Pounds, Will Smith has been pretty quiet recently. Focus marks the actor’s first leading role since Men in Black 3 back in 2012 and, judging by his IMDb credits – taken with a pinch of salt, of course – it would seem this is the beginning of something of a comeback.

The former Fresh Prince stars as Nicky, a third generation con man who runs a well-oiled team of hustlers who work the crowd at sporting events and large public gatherings, snatching wallets, rigging ATMs and swiping credit cards until they accumulate an impressive sum of money.

Nicky comes across Jess (Margot Robbie) in a swish hotel bar where she tries to get him up to her room. He’s onto her con from the beginning after spotting her steal a wallet from a drunk mark but lets her go through with it anyway. Jess realises Nicky is a veteran and practically begs him to teach her. He gives her a Mardi Gras test run and she impresses, cementing her spot in the crew and soon the mentor-pupil relationship inevitably turns into a romantic one.

The early scenes of Focus are its best, with Smith in full-on Hitch mode – a smooth-talker with all the right answers – and his scenes inducting Robbie into his team are entertaining, even as every con movie cliché in the book comes out to play. The standout scene at a baseball game involving a series of escalating bets with an irreverent Chinese businessman is the best moment in the film but also the point that things start to go downhill. Though the scene ultimately hinges on a seriously implausible amount of coincidences, it crackles with tension and we’re never sure which direction it’s going to go in. The ultimate payoff is fine but is the least interesting option and sends the plot onto a more conventional and subsequently more boring path.

That is Focus’ biggest problem. It sets up a lot of interesting possibilities and due to the nature of its characters and the seemingly twisting nature of the plot, we’re always second guessing what’s going on and what the character’s motivations are, so it’s frustrating when the script almost always goes for the straightforward option. The third act is enlivened by the introduction of Ownes (Gerald McRaney), a surly enforcer for Rodrigo Santoro’s far blander villain, and the finale – though it overstays its welcome – has some slick reversals but ultimately teases a lot but rarely delivers.

The stars are individually fine – Smith in particular does this kind of smooth-but-troubled charmer very well – but together there is very little chemistry. The second half of the film leans heavily on their romance but it never feels believable – the 22-year age difference between the stars doesn’t help – and because we’re always doubting and analysing what might be about to happen, it’s impossible to get invested in them.

This is the third feature for directing team Glen Ficarra and John Requa – after I Love You, Phillip Morris and Crazy, Stupid Love – and their slick visuals and largely playful tone keep things entertaining enough throughout. Couple that with a return to leading man form for Smith and Focus is just about worthwhile, even if it does frustrate as much as it dazzles.