Film Review – Focus
I’ve always wondered about master criminals: if they’re so smart and meticulous – studying their jobs to the finest detail and executing with pinpoint precision – why are they criminals to begin with? If these people are so talented at what they do, couldn’t they focus their efforts on more productive (aka legal) means to success? Most crime come as a result of desperation, so if you’re portraying a master lawbreaker cinematically, you better have a darn good reason for their existence.
Exhibit A: Focus (2015). Glenn Ficarra and John Requa share writing and directing duties, illustrating a world of expert thieves. We’re not just talking about a small group of cohorts; this is a whole organization of pickpockets, counterfeiters, actors, computer hackers, and set up crew. They operate like a legitimate business, which got me thinking: why can’t they just go into regular work themselves? The pay is relatively similar but the risk is way lower. Is it because of the thrill the hunt? The appeal of crime movies is seeing characters operate according to their own moral code. Here, they do it simply because it’s cool.
We’re introduced to Nicky (Will Smith), the “CEO” of one particular organization. Nicky is the personification of smooth: he knows all the tricks, is ahead of everyone by two steps, and always has an ace up his sleeve incase the going gets tough. He can take the watch off your wrist before you even notice he’s next to you, and sets up ridiculously elaborate cons using all types of methods. In one scene he uses the power of persuasion: dropping clues and hints on a target to get them in a specific frame of mind for a later job. This includes props, staged rallies, dozens of volunteers, perfectly placed pictures and signs, etc. Heck, the cost of setting up one of Nicky’s cons would require a con itself!
Nicky is all about never losing his edge, until he meets Jess (Margot Robbie), an up and coming pickpocket with tons of potential. Taking Jess under his wing (amongst other things) Nicky teaches her the finer details of his profession, taking her on jobs even when she doesn’t realize it. In the best scene of the movie, we watch Nicky, Jess, and the rest of the crew work their way through a large crowd in New Orleans. Calling to mind the slight of hand scenes in Pickpocket (1959), the camerawork and editing slides back and forth as they distract their targets, swipe their goods, and take off without being caught. It’s a breathless sequence where if you blink you could miss the moment where a wallet or necklace is lifted.
That’s about where the similarities end, however. Ficarra and Requa sidesteps the psychology of thievery – going for the basic “it’s how I was raised” explanation – and instead builds the narrative around the romance between Jess and Nicky. Margot Robbie and Will Smith share a tangible chemistry, but their story doesn’t go anywhere. Robbie, who tore up the screen in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), is more subdued here. Yes, she is very attractive and uses that as a means to trap her marks, but in the end she exists as a mere protégé to Nicky. The tension revolves around who is being sincere and who isn’t: is he playing her, is she playing him, are they being played by someone else? A fun first half loses steam as it crosses into the second, where Nicky and Jess’s relationship throws a wrench into Nicky’s next target (Rodrigo Santoro). The “will they/won’t they” dynamic messes up the intricacies of the con at play.
Will Smith has entered an interesting place in his career. His last starring film, After Earth (2013) was a massive disappointment critically and financially. Here, we see the charisma that made him one of the world’s biggest movie stars reemerge. He’s funny, charming, and commands our attention at all times. The writing and directing realizes this. He’s almost too cool as Nicky, his plans work out just a little too perfectly. Smith has always been easy to root for on screen, but I wonder if he is resigned to stay within this wheelhouse or will he branch out and try different things. He’s played this kind of character for so long that he can do it in his sleep.
The issue with con movies is similar to the issue with time travel movies: it’s always about the gimmick. With time travel, we always see how messing with the space-time continuum can cause chaos. In con movies, we always try to guess the final trick: that last second twist that comes just when things seem to be going a certain way. Because of these gimmicks, character and story development are usually forgotten about. The peculiar thing about Focus is – while well crafted and acted – its characters are thinly drawn and the final con is unremarkable as well. Not a great mix.