Media Courtesy of indiewire.com
The new film Focus
is a stylish and fun con artist film that looks gorgeous in more ways than one, but sadly sputters out of gas towards the final act.
Key among it's major plus factor points are its two lead actors. Will Smith as the suave, talented and experienced con man Nicky Spurgeon is the actor at his best, portraying a smooth, cool and charming player with a disarming sense of humor. It's the kind of slick (in a good way) character we first learned to love Smith playing in many of his early career roles, such as Bad Boys
and Independence Day
before he felt the need to add weightier, more serious gravitas to his character choices in later films. Focus
marks a return of Smith with Big Willie Style
swagger and cool confidence, with just the right touch of sensitivity.
However, practically stealing the spotlight from Smith in this complex, and ultimately too-convoluted con game is the absolutely stunning Margot Robbie as Jess, a beautiful bombshell novice con artist hoping an apprenticeship under Nicky's gentle touch (again, in more ways than one) and can up her skill in the game of con artistry. Margot is marvelous in her role, combining outwardly undeniable sexiness that leaps off the screen, combined with an awkward yet wonderfully endearing vulnerability that makes her otherwise jaw-droppingly beautiful character delightfully approachable and likable.
The film itself intentionally plays almost like two separate stories linked by the central characters' undercurrent of attraction for each other and their common thrill of the con. Nicky first meets Jess while the two are having drinks in a New Orleans bar before the Super Bowl. In a turn of events not to be revealed here to avoid spoilers, Nicky is amused to learn that Jess is an aspiring, but not quite ready for the big time, con artist whose best career asset at this point is a deft touch lifting a wallet or expensive watch from her mark.
When Jess learns Nicky is a superbly skilled con man in town with his large crew of fellow con artists and pickpockets to work the Super Bowl tourists and high-rollers, she wants in on the game--and to learn about how to more expertly play it. Nicky lays it out for Jess: the smart move isn't in playing the big elaborate con. Instead, working out of a boiler-room style make-shift office, he and his crew conduct an ongoing series of small-time, but ultimately profitable, boosts of tourists wallets, purses, rings, cameras and even ATM credit card scams. As Nicky explains to Jess, he and his crew stay under the radar by working on generating volume that eventually amounts to a cool 1.5-million.
Ultimately, Nicky sees promise in Jess as a con artist (and perhaps more) and takes her under his tutorial wing and into his con game fold of friends.
In one of the film's more memorable scenes early on, Nicky schools an enthusiastically "eager to learn" Jess in the fine art of focus and distraction. Standing only inches from each other, creating a wonderful combo of humor and sexual tension, Nicky teaches Jess how to easily pickpocket, boost, and lift the intimately guarded possessions of even the most aware of marks, as he gently smooth talks her, while lifting her watch, purse and repeatedly her ring right in front of her face. It's the first glimpse of the romantic sparks these two will generate as the film progresses.
The New Orleans con culminates in the most unexpected of ways via an increasingly hi-tension gambling face-off between Nicky and a crazily enthusiastic billionaire gambler (brilliantly played by B.D.Wong). When Jess and Nicky go to watch the actual Super Bowl to celebrate a profitable week, it appears Nicky is about to blow the entire 1.5-million in a foolish display of bravado and recklessness. Suffice to say, the end game to the sequence is brilliantly played to perfection. It could easily have been the closing sequence to the entire film, making for a truly satisfying and audience pleasing payoff.
Alas, here's where the story hits the skids and goes a step or two, too far, despite the continuing chemistry of Smith and Robbie on screen, which is the only thing keeping the subsequent contrived storyline somewhat afloat.
Fast forward three years after Smith and Robbie's characters have split for reasons left all too ambiguous to swallow. Having apparently given up on volume as the smart con game, Nicky is now working on a larger scale long con involving a slick, reptilian and decadent Formula One race car driver (Rodrigo Santoro) and his top secret device designed to give him an, at best, unethical edge over his competition. However, Nicky's con gets a bit sticky and complicated when the racing mogul's main squeeze turns out to be Jess.
From here, the film loses the joy and mojo from the wonderfully entertaining first portion. We're soon served up a series of bait and switch con games, plot diversions, and loads of narrative sleight of hand. Not to mention wondering if Nicky's apparent remorse over losing Jess years earlier is the real deal or just part of the bigger con he's running.
That's in large part the problem with Focus
as a film. We've been bathed so lavishly, and wonderfully so, in things ultimately not appearing as they seem to be--as the very fabric of film's marvelous first portion--that by the unveiling of this tacked on third act, we are immersed in far too many more con-games and plot shifts. This direction within the story causes the audience to not much care nor invest in the events that are presented on screen with the same earlier gusto.
The later diversionary cons are so expected at every turn, and flimsily so, that even when one central character's life is apparently in serious jeopardy near the end, we don't believe that's really the way things are ultimately going to go down. As a result, the third and final act is somewhat tiresome, underwhelming and unfulfilling.
However, kudos to Adrian Martinez as Nicky's comical but loyal friend and fellow con man and veteran actor Gerald McRaney as an old school, curmudgeonly thug in the service of the race car mogul. Their quirky yet enjoyable characters consistently add some spice to the mix; especially when the story overall starts to run out of gas.
Focus is, in general, a great deal of fun; hinging largely on the chemistry, both humorous and romantic, between Smith and Robbie on screen. Again, Smith reaffirms his status as symbol of swagger and cool on-screen; while Robbie shows great promise as an actress destined to shine in meatier, more substantive roles sure to come her way in her all but certain stellar future.
The two of them make Focus
worth the gamble that you won't feel entirely cheated by it's lackluster ending.
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