Focus (2015)

2 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Focus,” a caper comedy/thriller written and directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, is a film that really plays to the strengths of its star, Will Smith. After some poor recent choices in his career, he takes center stage in “Focus” as Nicky, a master con artist with many tricks of his sleeve, all of which require a lot of focus and incomparable skill. This is the kind of Will Smith performance we love to see: charming, charismatic, compelling, a little frivolous but with some dark undertones within him. His character here may also have an underlying gambling problem, which isn’t addressed directly in the film, but it is there and I noticed it, which made me consider what his character was thinking. He seems to want a bigger score with higher stakes each place he goes, whether it’s New York City, New Orleans, or Buenos Aries.

But of course, getting into the characters’ mindset is not an easy task for a film about slick con artists, especially when they’re in a story with so many twists and turns that you may have to see the film twice in order to understand some of its revelations. On top of that, each character is constantly lying in one way or another. So it’s difficult to know where the lies end and the truth begins, leaving the audience guessing and wondering where their words and crafts will get them next.

Thanks to a clever screenplay, “Focus” does a consistently good job at conning the audience. I must admit I didn’t see many of its twists coming. I was on the edge of my seat, awaiting what the next reveal and what it was going to mean and lead to. Granted, the third-act twist, as unpredictable as I thought it was, may be too much for someone who’s willing to sit down and think about it, in that it may be somewhat irrational, but I don’t think it damages the film. Even better is its depiction of how the characters manage to pull off their schemes—one of the best sequences is when a large number of pickpockets pull off a difficult routine in a busy New Orleans street; it’s very well-choreographed.

The first half is better than the second, as we get into the world of these scheming individuals, particularly Nicky who shows his new apprentice, Jess (Margot Robbie), what more to do with her abilities, while he’s also falling for her (or is he?). It’s fascinating to watch acts of thievery being committed this sneakily and in a fast-paced manner, while also showing that’s it very hard work. It’s also great to see a battle of wits and chance coming about, particularly in a fabulous sequence in which stakes are constantly raised at a football game where Nicky encounters a sneaky gambler (B.D. Wong). That may be the most riveting scene in the film, and its payoff is nothing short of brilliant. The second half may not be as intriguing as the first, but it does allow for even more situations for Nicky to get in and out of.

“Focus” is an entertaining film from start to finish and it’s anchored by clever writing and a top-notch performance from Will Smith, who is in eager need of a hit after years of bad or uneven career choices. This might be that film.

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