Reviewed by GREG KING

Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Stars: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigio Santoro, Adrian Martinez, B D Wong, Brennan Brown, Robert Taylor, Dotan Bonen, Domninic Fumusa.

Will Smith desperately needs a hit to reverse his box office slump, especially in the wake of some recent misfires like the dire After Earth, which a fellow critic labelled After Birth.

Focus is another of those heist caper crime films about a clever and charismatic con man, and it adheres closely to the familiar formula followed by films like Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men. These films are all about misdirection, and the audience sees what they want to see. But ever since the Oscar winning classic The Sting, audiences are also aware of this manipulation, and are on the lookout for the twists, the sting in the tail, and that uncertainty about who’s conning whom, who’s involved in the sting and who is the ultimate target in this duplicitous dance of deceit.

Smith plays Nicky a sharp crook who is the head of an elaborate group of scam artists who arrive in a city where there are major events and tourists ripe for the picking. They pick pockets, watches with ease and help themselves to a tidy fortune in goods before moving on to the next city. An early sequence in New Orleans gives us some insights into the art of the con and the sleight of hand necessary to carry out an operation of this scale.

The newest member of this team is Jess (played by Australian actress Margot Robbie, last seen opposite Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street), whom Nicky met while in New York and she tried to scam him. She helps Nicky’s team as they work their way through the eager crowds at Super Bowl in New Orleans.

But then the film jumps ahead three years, and we next see Nicky in Buenos Aires, where he has been hired by Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the crooked head of a Formula One racing team to get his hands on some revolutionary technology developed by an Australian (played by Robert Taylor). A complication arises when Nicky discovers that Jess is now Garriga’s girlfriend. This second act is less interesting and doesn’t have as much tension as the earlier scenes. And it also falls apart by the end when you start to pick away at the seams.

Focus has been written and directed by the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who previously gave us the black comedy Bad Santa, the quirky I Love You Phillip Morris and the anti-romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love. And it is obvious that they have a good knowledge of the genre and its conventions. The script is littered with little visual clues and snatches of dialogue that set up later developments, and the more astute will pick up on these. As with most of these types of films, some of the sinuous plotting will reward a second viewing.

Ficarra and Requa give us a couple of great set pieces here, the highlight of which is the scene at the Super Bowl in New Orleans, in which Nicky takes on a wealthy Chinese businessman and gambler (B D Wong, from Law & Order: SUV, etc) in a series of even more outlandish bets with the stakes raised. The intensity of the moment is enhanced with the pumped up sounds of The Rolling Stones’ hit Sympathy For The Devil playing in the background. Unfortunately there is little in the second half to match both the intensity and cleverness of this sequence.

Smith is back to that cocky persona he displayed in his earlier films, and he struts across the screen as if he owns it here. And he develops a good chemistry with his co-star Robbie, who steals several scenes from her star. Robbie has an alluring presence here as the femme fatale, and it is good to see her getting a solid role in a Hollywood film. Gerald McRaney is good as Owens, the ferociously protective head of Garriga’s security team who is suspicious and distrustful of Nicky, and he brings a touch of menace to his role. His gruff delivery of dialogue adds to the nature of his character. Adrian Martinez brings some humour to the material with his performance as Farhad, Nick’s unlikely looking computer expert.



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