Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: "Focus"

"Focus," a new crime caper/romance starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie, is smart and sexy as hell ... for a little while, at least. Like the confidence men and women it depicts, it's good at the short game but stretches too far for the long con, and falls short.

The first and last thirds are borderline dazzling, as Nicky (Smith) and Jess (Robbie) pull off a variety of scams, heists and outright pilfering. The middle section, though, drags us down so much that it sucks vital juices from the remainder.

Will Smith is playing the classic Will Smith character -- skilled, smart and cooler than thou. Nicky is the son and grandson of legendary con men, and is making quite a mark of his own. What's interesting about this depiction is that, rather than the classic lone wolf, Nicky is the leader of a team of dozens of thieves who get together for a variety of small scores, and then disperse.

Brennan Brown and Adrian Martinez play his chief lieutenants, and the closest thing to friends a guy like Nicky allows himself to have. Martinez steals many a scene with his droll delivery and sexualized quips.

The early section is about them working New Orleans in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. They lift watches right off your wrist, nab wallets or pocketbooks, use your credit cards to run up merchandise that they then sell online and pocket the cash. These scenes are much like a well-coordinated ballet, which writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ably stage.

But then... the girl walks in. Dames usually mark the commencement of troubles in these types of movies, and Jess is no exception. A budding thief, she takes instruction from Nicky, becomes his pupil, partner and lover, and it becomes a contest to see who's putting one over on who.

Unless of course -- they actually love each other???

Nicky teaches the art of distraction, getting to know your marks and being able to persuade anyone of anything. "You get their focus, you take whatever you want," he says. He goes on to prove his skills in an elaborate ruse that seems like a complete disaster, until it isn't.

After a hiatus of three years, for reasons I'll not spoil, the pair finds themselves together again in Buenos Aires, with both having their eye on the same mark: Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a fabulously wealthy and arrogant race car team owner.

Nicky has been hired to pretend to sell his fuel consumption algorithm -- a classic nonsensical MacGuffin -- to his chief competitor. But Garriga's stern security chief, Owens (Gerald McRaney), suspects that something is up. Jess, meanwhile, claims to have gone straight and is simply dating Garriga -- probably for just his money, but in her line that's considered legit.

Robbie and Smith have some real sizzle onscreen, especially as we're forced to guess how much of their steamy romance is pure smokescreen.

(I do feel compelled to point out their 22-year age difference. Smith's young stud-on-the-make days are dwindling, but he seems determined to milk out every ounce.)

"Focus" has got plenty of head-jerking plot twists, surprises and double-takes. Its squishy center, though, robs the film of too much momentum.

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