Veteran conman Nicky (Smith) takes rookie pickpocket Jess (Robbie) under his wing, training her in the ways of larceny. But when they separately become involved in a major racing scam, one misstep from either could spell disaster.
You know where you stand with a caper movie. Slippery as an eel, light as a goose-feather and populated by attractive people telling each other porkies, it will inevitably feature a seasoned grifter reciting hard-won knowledge to a scrappy upstart. “There’s hammers and nails,” Will Smith whispers to Margot Robbie in Focus. “You decide which you want to be.” Fortunately, she doesn’t ask how to figure out if you’re an electric drill.
As this exchange implies, the latest entry in the category of film that is cinéma du swindle is a rather over-familiar confection. But at least it’s rarely as generic as its thuddingly first-base title, and while the route it takes is one that’s been travelled cinematically many times before, it has enough dazzle along the way to make it worth a watch.
Smith and Robbie slip easily into their roles. Frequently cast as an authority figure, most recently in the joyless After Earth, Smith revels in the opportunity to play super-slick hustler Nicky. And Robbie gives as good as she gets, marvellously gutsy as pickpocket Jess. Part romantic comedy, part Jedi/padawan training drama, Focus is a fine showcase for their chemistry — and no doubt the reason they’ll be reunited in next year’s Suicide Squad.
Writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the minds behind Crazy Stupid Love, manage for the most part to freshen up the formula with nifty sleight-of-hand. The opening set-piece starts with the pair meeting in conventional romcom style, and ends as something much sneakier, as Nicky and Jess put their cards on the table and recognise each other as kindred spirits. There’s a wonderful ‘ta-da!’ moment over brunch in a café as the scale of Nicky’s operation is revealed. In one standout sequence we track a villainous henchman as he goes about his business, killing time until he ambushes our heroes.
The problem is that overall, the movie is just a little too light. Gliding smoothly from one situation to the next, Nicky is a character for whom everything comes effortlessly — as a gruff, foul-mouthed enforcer snapping at his heels, Gerald McRaney displays more personality in one scene than Smith is allowed during his entire screentime. He’s a cypher: a fun companion for the ride, but difficult to root for when the guano hits the fan in the third act. Jess is more interesting, but it’s one of those films that’s only as gripping as the bit of plot-twistiness that’s going on at any given time.
Speaking of which, the highlight is a ten-minute sequence at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. So self-contained it could work as a short film, it guest-stars BD Wong as a giggling, filthy-’tached billionaire who challenges Nicky to a high-stakes bet, and quickly spirals into a hugely suspenseful, assured piece of cinema. It’s at this point that Focus flies.
Hitch meets The Sting. This is maximum-gloss entertainment with its fair share of tricksy rug-pulls. But, like one of the neon-coloured cocktails Smith drinks in it, its more of an immediate rush than something youll remember in a year.