Everyone loves a caper movie; they’re exciting, sexy, full of twists and turns and the audience is always rooting for the robbers. In Ocean’s Eleven, you root for Danny Ocean to succeed because pulling off the crime means he also wins back his ex-wife. In The Italian Job, you root for Charlie and the gang to make it through mafia-ridden Italy because, well, it’s Michael Caine vs the mob.
This is the problem with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus – there’s no real reason to wish Will Smith’s Nicky and his 40 thieves success. He’s charming, but not in a likeable way and though he’s a talented thief, he doesn’t steal for the good of anyone but himself. But things get seemingly complicated for him when he and his apprentice, the gorgeous petty crook, Jess (Margot Robbie), fall for each other while pulling a huge con in New Orleans. Sucking in a gullible millionaire, Nicky uses an unwitting Jess as part of the trick and then immediately dumps her. Classic leading man move, no?
While the love story is playing in the foreground, there’s a constant stream of cons running in the background, some of which are actually quite impressive. Watches, wallets, diamonds, credits cards are all snatched by Nicky’s merry men but these scenes are so well shot that they look almost too elegant and slick – are thieves this capable in the real world?
Cut to three years down the line and the pair run into each other in Buenos Aires, in the world of a wealthy race car tycoon (Rodrigo Santoro), leaving Nicky and Jess to wonder who is conning who. Of course, it being a movie about professional liars, everyone is conning everyone else.
The ‘romance’ between Nicky and Jess often feels forced as we see early on that he is quite happy to leave a tearful Jess in the back seat of a limo with just a bag full of money and a broken heart. Both of them are now just a pawn for the other but the writer would have us believe that there’s real love there and, despite the sexual chemistry between Smith and Robbie, it’s a little tough to believe.
The constant state of manipulation that is Nicky’s world is somewhat draining as all of the audience’s trust is dissolved in the New Orleans scenes. He lies to his marks, he lies to Jess and then abandons her – why should we believe in him or want him to win? By the time the story jumps to Buenos Aires, no one can believe anything anyone says or does; it’s not only exhausting but it exposes parts of the con, making twists easier to spot.
The dialogue is snappy enough with Jess giving as good as she gets – not often the case for what is essentially the Bond girl role – and Robbie gets to flex her considerable acting chops, making her upcoming role in the Suicide Squad as Harley Quinn all the more exciting. Adrian Martinez also gets in a few of the best laughs as Nicky’s overweight and perverted comic relief sidekick, Farhad.
Will Smith, however, does what he always does: looks cool, has a good body, and puts almost no effort into delivering his lines. To be fair, his character isn’t as well developed as the film thinks it is. In fact the whole movie isn’t as good as it thinks it is; dropping attractive people into well-dressed sets doesn’t mean you’re a classy picture. The proposal for the movie would have been something like Ocean’s Eleven crossed with Out of Sight but, despite some genuinely amusing moments, most of which Robbie is responsible for, and some clever capers, Focus is actually a little blurry.