It’s pretty easy to poke fun at this one when it has the title Focus because it has a serious lack of one. This flick doesn’t get off to a strong start. The two main characters happen to meet in a hotel bar, and they just happen to both be con artists. Nicky (Will Smith) is the veteran. Jess (Margot Robbie) is the amateur. How convenient for the plot of a movie, but not believable for a second.
The first act consists of Nicky training Jess, and it’s pretty tedious. Jess is a poorly written character who just comes off as annoying and Robbie’s performance doesn’t help things. She’s beautiful, but that’s about all she has going for her in this flick. It doesn’t help matters that Smith and Robbie have zero chemistry. Zilch. Watching these two characters lamely interact, I longed for The Thomas Crown Affair which had two equals, played by Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, going to toe-to-toe in a game of cat-and-mouse. Much more intriguing.
But we have to watch these characters and they eventually head to the Superbowl. It leads to the first compelling sequence of the film, as Nicky starts to bet against a wealthy businessman (B.D. Wong). It’s a tense sequence that is carried on Will Smith’s more-than-capable shoulders. Since we should all just forget the atrocity that was After Earth, Will hasn’t been working very much in the last 5 years, so it’s like rediscovering what a major movie star he is. Watching him here reminded me of watching Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III. Even though Tom was in the midst of his post-couch jumping PR nightmare, he leaves that all behind and is able to be the charismatic movie star we love. Will’s only disaster was on the screen in that sci-fi flick alongside his son, Jaden, but he makes you forget it here. When the film “focuses” on him, it works.
There’s still a lack of “focus” in the script though. Nicky explains that he was relying on the cue of a Rolling Stones song for a certain con…but when you think back to the scene, the music wasn’t playing yet for Nicky’s explanation to work. The same reckless writing ruins Nicky’s assurance that his con would eventually work no matter how long it took because you’d just have to keep guessing the same number over and over (I’d go into more clear explanation, but I don’t want to spoil).
The film never wins back your trust again, even as it produces a pretty solid third act. The film keeps its focus on Nicky (the less Jess the better), and Gerald McRaney (as a right hand man) hits the right tone of cool and dry humour for a con flick.
This isn’t a total disaster, but it’s a disappointment, especially when Will Smith is in such fine form. Too bad. At least it’s better than After Earth, Will.