DIRECTORS: Glenn Ficarra and John RequaFocus-Poster-691x1024

CAST: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoto, Gerald McRaney, BD Wong, Robert Taylor, Dominic Fumusa, Brennan Brown, Griff Furst, Adrian Martinez, Alfred Tumbley

RUNNING TIME: 104 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: Con-man Nicky (Smith) becomes romantically involved with an aspiring femme fatale (Robbie), which threatens to derail a later scheme with her on the opposing side…

 

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Recently, Will Smith admitted that starring in M. Night Shyamalan’s disastrous 2013 sci-fi flick After Earth alongside son Jaden was “the most painful failure of my career” – and that’s from the same man who also starred in Wild Wild West. Audiences, and critics, agreed; many felt that Smith’s prominent charisma and charm had been sucked out in place of something more lifeless and stoic, like an empty shell of human skin left over from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Thankfully it’s all uphill from here, as Focus not only fully reinstates Smith’s A-list personality but also provides him with his most intriguing film in years.

Smith, as a con-man heading a slick pickpocketing syndicate in New Orleans, is a perfect match for writers-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who, with their past films I Love You Phillip Morris and Crazy Stupid Love, have a knack for taking their main actors and injecting a new sense of life into their performances. Smith feels much more comfortable in this steamier environment, and is allowed to flex his strong acting abilities far more than he was likely to have done on Shyamalan’s set. Not only that, but he has finally learned to share the screen with other performers; his chemistry with co-lead Margot Robbie is highly engaging while also respectful of the Wolf of Wall Street star’s own rising talents. She is a true movie star in the making if her performance here is anything to go by, igniting a spark into her character that makes her more interesting and likable than anyone else would probably allow. If both Smith and Robbie are this excellent on-screen together in next year’s supervillain mash-up Suicide Squad, then it’ll be a treat for everyone involved. Get on it, David Ayer…

The film itself is also very intriguing to watch, particularly throughout its first half which, in all honesty, would have been a near flawless film in its own right. It establishes the strong chemistry between Smith and Robbie, supporting players that manage to leave an impression without completely overshadowing the two main leads, this fast-paced and carefully choreographed way of work, and the potential dilemmas with which they face. It even has its own climax, set entirely in a viewing booth in a football stadium, where Smith and Robbie come into contact with BD Wong’s flamboyant businessman after an innocent spout of gambling turns into something more destructive. It is easily the most impressive set-piece in the entire film; well-directed, well-written, certainly well-acted, and featuring perhaps the most inspired use of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” within a film in recent memory. If this entire first half of the film had been slightly expanded to include more of everything that makes it so entertaining, then it could have easily been its own standalone movie that’s just as satisfying.

However, it wasn’t expanded, which means we also have to endure the second half of the film. It’s not that it’s bad, not even a little, but when you follow up such an engaging and flowing first half with something that’s a little more complicated and twisty, then it’s a tad underwhelming. Again, it feels like a completely separate film or – heavens above – a sequel that just happens to be spliced into its predecessor; almost everything from that first half rarely comes back into play (certain characters don’t even make a reappearance; they disappear as soon as they arrived) and it’s like there’s a completely different and new story being told instead. We have Rodrigo Santoro’s race car owner hiring Smith’s con-man with full knowledge that he’s a con-man and the belief that he won’t be ripped off by that same con-man, which both makes no sense and is rather stupid, and a final twist that seems to come completely out of nowhere and out of character for the person involved. In short, it’s decent but nowhere near as strong as its much better thought-out first half.

This could have been a very interesting experiment; film both parts simultaneously, expand on both of them in story and character, and release them separately at different parts of the release schedule; something like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but with con artists. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be, and we’re left with a film that works fine as a whole, but severely disjointed with one half far outpacing the other. Imagine Focus as being Will Smith’s WALL-E; a brilliantly executed opening that’s slightly dampened by its later directions, which doesn’t make it bad at all but prevents it from being the true classic that it could have turned out to be.

But hey, at least Will’s cheered up now after his experience with Shyamalan, and if that’s not rewarding enough for audiences then we don’t know what is.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Focus starts strong with an intriguing and well-paced first half, but is let down by its lesser second-half which gets a bit too complicated and twisty for its own good. Luckily, Will Smith and Margot Robbie are an excellent on-screen couple, and it’s a welcome return for Smith’s charisma after a lacklustre experience with M. Night Shyamalan…