Will Smith Regains His "Focus" In This Smart, Sexy Con Artist Caper

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Focus opens in theaters 2/27/15.

Will Smith is an easy actor to like. He doesn't interrupt award shows pining for Beyoncé like some people we could mention. He hasn't had a major meltdown on the set or in public. He's gone about his film career about as well as any top drawing actor truly could and yet he hasn't really had a huge hit at the box office for some time, at least in my opinion—2008’s “Hancock” was the last Smith movie I really enjoyed. That's about to change.

"Focus" follows the exploits of top con man Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) as he runs a ring of grifters, pick pockets, hackers and con artists. The newest member of his team is Jess (Margot Robbie, recently cast as Harley Quinn in the upcoming “Suicide Squad” project, which also features Will Smith as Deadshot), a strikingly beautiful woman and a green thief but loaded with potential. The team shakes down some big scores in New Orleans and then Nicky suddenly disbands the gang. The film jumps forward in time a couple years and Nicky resurfaces in Argentina where he gets involved in a con with corrupt Formula 1 racing team owner Garriga (played by Brazilian star Rodrigo Santoro) and his "problem fixer," Owens (the seemingly resurrected Gerald McRainey, whom I’ve enjoyed since his Simon & Simon days). The con is in full motion until Nicky's former partner and lover Jess shows up on his client's arm.

The second act is a twisted but not-too-confusing mix of con man shenanigans and some reasonably believable romantic mix-ups between the two leads. Margot Robbie is taking Hollywood by storm right now and shows here that she's more than just a pretty face. She holds her own quite well against Will Smith, who goes effortlessly between macho and smart to love struck and vulnerable. The choice of McRainey as the lieutenant to the race boss was surprising but he steals most of the scenes he’s in with his irascible attitude. He seems poised to enjoy a second career as a tough-as-nails senior citizen or manipulative Washington insider like he portrayed in Netflix’s House of Cards opposite Kevin Spacey.   

Stylishly filmed and directed without the heavy-handedness I've come to expect from Hollywood these days, "Focus" was an absolute blast to watch. The first act was exciting and the Super Bowl sequence was riveting as Smith and BD Wong as eccentric Chinese millionaire gambler Liyuan face off in the con man’s equivalent to a High Noon shootout. The second act slows things down quite a bit as it refocuses (no pun intended) the main characters and digs deeper into their psyches. The chemistry between Smith and Robbie more than compensates for the more deliberate pace, though I personally had no issues with the pacing at all. Some of my fellow critics have no patience. It doesn’t drag—it develops the main characters, or more accurately, in this film, resets them. I don’t think it would have worked if three years later both Nicky and Jess were the same as they’d been in New Orleans. The twists are fun rather than just a weak excuse to prolong the inevitable, as twists so often are.

The writing and directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (of “Crazy, Stupid, Love” fame) satisfied my hunger for a good con artist story that’s been growling inside me since Leverage ended in a big way. Will Smith appears to be back on top of his game and Margot Robbie should be a star to watch for the rest of her hopefully lengthy career. With a great supporting cast and smart, artful direction, "Focus" should be a big hit. I'm surprised they're releasing it now and not saving it for a more lucrative weekend in the summer. This is the “Now You See Me” of 2015.

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0