Focus is always stylish, mostly exciting and features Will Smith beginning to return to form but its poor start, underwhelming finale and criminally under-developed characters prevents it from being the crime caper it had the potential to be.
Focus is Will Smith’s first leading role since 2013’s abysmal After Earth and Margot Robbie first since last year’s oscar nominated The Wolf of Wall Street. The two stars could not be coming into their new project off the back two films that are more different, quality wise. Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love), Focus follows veteran con-man Nicky (Smith) who takes Jess (Robbie) under his wing as an apprentice of sorts. However, things quickly being become complicated as the pair become romantically involved, threatening their business, so Nicky rapidly breaks it off. Three years later they meet again, with Jess now an accomplished ‘femme-fatale’, and they become embroiled in another high stakes con that threatens both of their plans.
First of all, from the start, it is clear that Focus is a gorgeous and stylish crime caper. The beautiful cast and stunning settings give the film an aesthetic style that matches the expensive, high-stakes world of the ‘con’ that the film is about. New Orleans and Buenos Aires are just a couple of the stunning locations in which the story of Nicky and Jess’ relationship unfolds.
However, even with Focus’ beauty, it starts poorly. Smith and Robbie’s characters meet within moments and after not much more than a quick drink at the hotel bar they are part of the same team. Nicky begins teaching Jess the best techniques for stealing watches and wallets discretely and they are soon sent out to the streets of Manhattan to see what Jess has learned. This all happens within the first ten minutes, leaving no time for any character development or even introduction. The audience is informed of Nicky’s gambling problem and family issues but Jess’ past is never mentioned and throughout she is nothing more than a beautiful young woman that has stumbled into Nicky’s world of crime. The lack of high-stakes tension and the rushed introduction make Robbie and Smith’s performances seem uncomfortable at the start. Without having to be passionate about their past or worry about any elaborate plan they initially come across as quite awkward.
Fortunately, as the stakes are raised the whole film improves. As millions of dollars become involved, rather than the contents of a stranger’s wallet, the tension increases. The more elaborate cons give the writers a chance to be a bit more creative and twists come one after another, most of them being intelligent and surprising. Also, now that the characters have something at stake, cracks in their relationships start to appear and both of the stars have a chance to convey a wider range of emotions. Although Smith’s character is essentially the same no-nonsense guy that is trying to redeem himself that we have seen in the majority of his older films, his performance gets stronger as the tension builds and his on-screen chemistry with Robbie is excellent. However, although most of the plot’s twists and turns are unpredictable and exciting, there are far too many in the final act and a few of them can be seen coming from quite far away, creating a slightly underwhelming conclusion.
More surprising than Focus’ endless twists is how funny it can be. Admittedly, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny but some of Smith’s one-liners improve an otherwise weak start. Nicky’s bumbling assistant Farhad (Adrian Martinez) is also an amusing distraction from the serious world of crime. Aside from a strange joke about all Australian’s being criminals that Robbie would surely have found odd, most of the humour is confined to the first act but it’s fun whilst the tension builds.
Ultimately, Focus is always stylish, mostly exciting and features Will Smith beginning to return to form but its poor start, underwhelming finale and criminally under-developed characters prevent it from being the crime caper it had the potential to be.
Focus (2015), is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is distributed by Warner Bros. in the UK, Certificate 15.