[Screen It]

"FOCUS"
(2015) (Will Smith, Margot Robbie) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A seasoned con artist must contend with his former protégé coming back into his life and potentially messing up his latest ploy.
PLOT:
Nicky Spurgeon (WILL SMITH) is a veteran con artist who's skilled at robbing people, whether that's through simple sleight-of-hand manipulation or elaborate heists that involve his various team members, including the likes of Farhad (ADRIAN MARTINEZ) and Horst (BRENNAN BROWN). When an attractive young woman, Jess Barrett (MARGOT ROBBIE), tries to seduce him into her own sort of robbery con, he's immediately on to her and then gives her a few tips before headed to New Orleans for his team's next big score. Jess manages to track him down there, and after a test run to prove her ability to participate with the rest, she joins the team, although she's surprised to see Nicky seemingly lose his cool demeanor while betting with a high stakes gambler, Liyuan (BD WONG), at the Super Bowl.

Despite them being romantically involved, Nicky then cuts her loose and the movie jumps forward three years where millionaire Spanish racecar team owner Rafael Garríga (RODRIGO SANTORO) wants to hire the con man to pull over a fast one on rival race team owner McEwen (ROBERT TAYLOR). Rafael's right-hand man and enforcer, Owens (GERALD McRANEY), doesn't trust Nicky and thinks it's a bad idea, but has to go along with his boss' decision.

But when Nicky starts to enact the plan, he catches sight of Jess with Rafael, a development that throws him for a loop. With everyone's motives in question, Nicky then modifies his plan in what appears to be his bid to win Jess back and get away with as much money as possible.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Everyone knows the old saying about fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. In the world of movies, that can certainly be applied to the works of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, the former Hollywood wonder-kid who made a huge splash with the terrific "The Sixth Sense" and its brilliant, shockaroo plot twist near its end.

The problem, though, was that the filmmaker got addicted to the twist endings, and thus audiences were waiting for them and actively watching for clues of that in his subsequent works. All of which lessened the twist, while simultaneously distracting viewers from most everything else surrounding such plot mechanics.

That's part of the problem with "Focus," a crime caper flick starring Will Smith as a veteran con man who ends up falling for his younger protégé (Margot Robbie) after she fails at conning him upon their first, racy meeting and then takes her under his wing to teach her the tricks of the trade.

While the film isn't designed like one of Shyamalan's flicks that has everything in place with the sole purpose to knock one's socks off with a big surprise at the end, most viewers will realize that one is likely coming, what with the sub-genre in which the pic falls as well as the overall premise.

The bigger related issue at play, however, is that co-writers/co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa deliver a better conceived, executed and surprising twist far earlier in the film. I won't go into specifics regarding which characters that involves or how it plays out, but I'll admit it caught me completely off-guard, especially in terms of pulling a fast one on the audience after earlier instructing us -- via Smith's character teaching Robbie's -- about the various facets of misdirection and sleight-of-hand.

It's a brilliant bit of viewer manipulation, and gets even better when the entire scheme is explained to us and shown in bits and pieces of various flashbacks. The only problem is that it raises the bar so high for what ultimately has to follow that the subsequent twists and turns, including the "big one" at the conclusion feel blasé and certainly a bit of a letdown in comparison.

It's as if the big con in the remake of "Ocean's Eleven" had occurred midway through that superb flick, thus leaving the lesser ones to wrap things up. The fun in that film and others of its ilk is watching the planning and execution of the pivotal con where any switcheroos are a side product of the script rather than the focal point.

Here, once the best sequence has concluded, we're on constant guard while trying to determine who's conning who and figure out how things are going to play out, rather than simply going with the flow and enjoying the ride. Accordingly, everything feels a bit too calculated, with the payoff not nearly creative or interesting enough to make all of the distractions worthwhile.

Smith and Robbie certainly have good chemistry together, but I just wish the plot mechanics and their dialogue exchanges were juicier, smarter and more entertaining to behold. Adrian Martinez is a hoot as the protagonist's literal and metaphorical partner in crime, seemingly channeling some Wayne "Newman!" Knight in his unkempt sarcasm, while BD Wong is fun in an extended cameo bit that I was hoping would somehow tie back into the third act but never happens.

Instead, we get more than enough of Rodrigo Santoro as the rich if boring owner of a car racing team, although Gerald McRaney introduces some coarse levity as his profane, right-hand man. But even he can't save that final act that simply feels like a major let-down considering what preceded it. Slick and glossy, the film is easy enough to watch from a pure visual standpoint, and Smith and Robbie certainly help in that view.

With a few -- okay, maybe a lot -- of extra passes through the scriptwriting phase, this could have been a classic for the genre. As it stands, it has its moments, but the best come early and not often enough to earn "Focus" anything higher than a 5.5 out of 10 rating.




Reviewed February 24, 2015/ Posted February 27, 2015


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