If ever an actor could be described as only as good as his last film, it’s Will Smith. With a career that had been progressing at a gently-declining rate, Smith took a four-year absence from screens before rehashing the Men In Black franchise in 2012 to widespread commercial, if not critical success. Yet following the all-round disastrous performance of po-faced sci-fi After Earth, co-starring his son Jaden, the prevailing perception is that Smith is now well past his sell-by date, something that not even reviving the Fresh Prince theme on The Graham Norton Show can remedy. His latest vehicle, Focus, is a sleek thriller that sees a return to the playful persona that made audiences fall in love with Smith all those years ago. Co-toplining alongside Wolf Of Wall Street break-out Margot Robbie, Focus clearly aims to reacquaint contemporary audiences with the notion of Smith as the leading man. While aided to no end by the duo’s strong chemistry and likeable performances, Focus is ultimately a hollow, surface level thriller, fun while it lasts, but fades fast from the memory.”
Smith’s Nicky is an accomplished con-man, his supposed expertise on human nature allowing him to dupe just about anyone. Taking wannabe con artist Jess (Robbie) under his wing, he introduces her to his vast operation which, for the film’s first act, inhabits a New Orleans compound. Alongside a crack team of well-trained pawns, they hustle all manner of riches from the wealthy and naive at various functions. The delicate formula with which Nicky approaches these various cons is never explained cohesively, each sting seemingly relying on either blind chance and the idiocy of their victims. We’re treated to numerous montages of well-choreographed mass pick-pocketings and set-ups, almost uniformly involving horny businessmen getting caught with their trousers down. It’s all smoke and mirrors, but you’d be hard pressed to say it’s not a lot of fun. Writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy Stupid Love) stage these sequences with a sunburst energy, creating an atmosphere that’s more infectious than it is engaging. A fine example is a gambling sting that occurs just before the midpoint, wherein the pay off amounts to little more than an elaborately staged Derren Brown mind-trick.
We don’t expect a huge level of emotional depth from a film as outwardly flashy as Focus, in which by default we’re constantly questioning the characters’ motivations and second guessing the conclusion. As Nicky and Jess, Smith and Robbie’s shared star presence nimbly disguises their characters’ one-dimensional nature, their palpable chemistry proving the film’s strongest asset. Following a three-year time jump, a plodding Buenos Aires-set second act serves as a lead in towards the film’s absurdly complicated, nonsensical conclusion. Substituting any kind of character-driven emotional pay-off for one last questionable twist, its here that the lack of depth becomes a major issue, not least in its problematic characterisation of Jess. While it’s not going to result in any kind of career resurgence for Smith, Focus ultimately succeeds at reminding us what the star can do even when faced with thin material. By it’s end, we’re left with little sense of the film’s core message, other than the feeling that while we’ve been conned, it was fun while it lasted.