Will Smith became a giant movie star because we took him seriously, even when he was doing roles that were mostly comedic.
We know Smith has serious acting chops thanks to his roles in films such as “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” but even in big, loud, goofy fare such as “Independence Day” and the “Men in Black” movies, Smith sold every inch of his performance.
Smith’s star has been shining less brightly lately after the disaster that was “After Earth” and a smallish role in the equally terrible “Winter’s Tale,” but he gets his cool back on with his charismatic performance in “Focus,” one of the better movies about the art of the con in recent memory.
As a longtime and serious student of con artists — never as a participant, as far as you know (I’m kidding! Or am I?) — I’ll go ahead and boast I saw nearly every twist and turn coming around the corner. But that didn’t spoil my appreciation for the clever screenplay by co-writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also teamed up for a nifty directing job with some gorgeous location shoots and some beautifully choreographed pickpocket scenes.
This is just sheer, escapist entertainment from start to finish.
Smith stars as Nicky, a third-generation con man who’s been at it so long, not even Nicky is sure where the lies end and the truth begins. Nicky and his team (including Adrian Martinez as Farhad, the obligatory comedic relief/sidekick who knows our antihero better than anyone else) work big events such as the college bowl games, conventions and professional sports championships, where the hard-partying, flush-with-cash tourists make for easy marks.
It’s thievery and it’s hard work. Nicky makes his living one wallet, one stolen credit card, one watch, one necklace at a time.
The beautiful Margot Robbie (Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) is Jess, an inexperienced con who persuades Nicky to show him the ropes. There’s an instant chemistry between the two, but when you have a lifelong professional liar hooking up with an aspiring professional liar, every kiss is tinged with just a speck of doubt.
Smith and Robbie are terrific together. At various points along the way, he’s playing her, and then she’s playing him, and then we’re almost positive they’ve let their collective guard down and they’re really in love …
Or are they?
Ficarra and Requa have the confidence and the talents as filmmakers to indulge in a couple of elaborate, elongated set pieces that are as much about establishing the truth about the main characters as they are about advancing the story. In one such scene, in the skybox of a Super Bowl-type football championship in New Orleans, Nicky gets mixed up in a rapidly escalating betting war with a thrill-seeking businessman (BD Wong in a performance so good it’s a disappointment he doesn’t have a bigger part). It starts off with a $10 “prop bet” on how many men will ogle a woman’s behind as she walks up the aisle. A few wagers later, they’re betting obscene amounts of money on such seemingly arbitrary outcomes such as whether or not a return man will take a knee in the end zone or try to run back the kick. It’s a great scene, with a brilliant payoff.
Later the action switches to Buenos Aires, where a billionaire race car owner named Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) enlists Nicky’s help in an elaborate con. Gerald McRaney has some priceless moments as Owens, a seriously dangerous enforcer who works for Garriga and has little regard for Nicky and for that matter for anyone of Nicky’s generation. Owens’ rant about Twitter and other social media is an instant classic.
As things get messier and more complicated, “Focus” strays from the plausible to only-in-the-movies. The big reveal at the end would have worked better if we haven’t seen variations on it in at least a half-dozen movies.
Still, Smith gives one of his best performances in years and, at 46, is arguably in the best shape since he played Muhammad Ali. Robbie is a sweet femme fatale, and the supporting players, most notably McRaney, Wong and Martinez, kill it.
I like this movie’s style.
Warner Bros. presents a film written and directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for language, some sexual content and brief violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.