Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Starring Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Robert Taylor and Adrian Martinez
In UK Cinemas February 27th, 2015

by Richard Hamer

There’s a sense in which Focus is exactly the movie Will Smith needs right now: funny, charming and likeable, it’s very much a return to form after a couple of high profile failures (Men in Black 3 and After Earth) in a period which has seen his name become more synonymous with the inconsistent artistic endeavours of his children than of his own.

Will Smith the movie star has been away too long: part of that hallowed Pantheon of endlessly photogenic, thoroughly dependable actors that – right now – could be argued to include only him and Tom Cruise. Focus, while far from his greatest work, finally gives us back that Smith.

We first encounter Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) in New York. An experienced con artist over a decade in the game, circumstances find him in the company of eager but inexperienced grifter Jess Barrett (played with an easy charm by Margot Robbie). He agrees to recruit her as an ‘intern’, and together they con their way through the crowds of New Orleans, a part of the almost industrial scale operation of robbery, pickpocketing and identity theft that goes on behind the scenes.

These early sequences, demonstrating the close-up art of pickpocketing with all its smart touches and minutely timed distractions, are some of the movie’s best. While Focus becomes – somewhat inevitably – a glossy caper of tailored suits, beautiful women and slow pans across glittering city skylines, there is an eye for detail, for the physical construction of the con and the subtle manipulation of human instinct, that shines through the Hollywood sheen and predictable storyline.

But mostly, Focus is a romantic comedy, one set in a world that doesn’t ‘do’ emotions, where relationships are built on lies, and love – as is commented at one point – ‘can get you killed’. Smith and Robbie sell this conceit well: they have a real on-screen chemistry, and the scenes they share demonstrate a good ear for witty dialogue (no surprise since writing duties come from the duo behind the wonderful Crazy, Stupid, Love). But behind every award-winning smile and flirtatious exchange is a sly undercurrent of mutual mistrust – both between the characters and from the viewer – that has you wondering if anyone is telling the truth at any point.

All of which just makes Focus highly watchable: fun, funny and rich in the sort of style you’d expect from a high stakes hustle movie. The fact that it never reaches loftier heights is largely from a lack of want to try: Focus definitely leans towards the ‘comedy’ side of crime comedy, where the endless lies and complex trust issues at the heart of Spurgeon’s world are wrapped up a little too neatly, and the big score that makes up a majority of the final act is – ultimately – a fairly straightforward means to an end.

But taken for what it is – to use the old critic’s cliché – Focus is an enjoyable comedy, and a well executed, polished vehicle to reintroduce the world to the movie star Will Smith. It’s good to have him back.

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