Focus is about getting played

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3 out of 4 stars

In Focus, Will Smith tries to pull off a con even more impressive than scheming his way from a $1 million payday to a $27 million bonanza: He tries to convince the audience he’s much better than his recent string of mediocre movies.

Smith’s always been a good hero — and that’s the problem. He’s simply not great. Look at his last past few movies: After Earth (2013), Men in Black 3 (2012), Seven Pounds (2008), Hancock (2008) and I Am Legend (2007). How much do you remember of any of them?

It's hard to take your eyes off Will Smith and Margot Robbie throughout Focus. (Warner Bros.)
It’s hard to take your eyes off Will Smith and Margot Robbie throughout Focus. (Warner Bros.)

Smith’s con has been making moviegoers believe that his next film will serve as a reminder why America fell in love with him during his younger days, when he starred in Ali, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Enemy of the State, Bad Boys, and Independence Day.

But Smith’s older and wiser, which makes him an even better con artist, enabling him to deliver a performance that makes the audience forget he’s spent the past six years soaking in mediocrity.

Focus casts Smith in a different light, revealing a sinister side. He’s Nicky Spurgeon, the ringleader of a gang of con artists. They work in harmony, with one pickpocket handing a wallet or a watch to an inconspicuous cohort who seamlessly flips it to another thief, moving in perfect rhythm like the Harlem Globetrotters dribbling a basketball to Sweet Georgia Brown.

Nicky’s gang can swipe a ring off a finger as deftly as a lens off a camera, with all the bounty sold and proceeds divided among the group. The cons are intense and elaborate, especially a seemingly impromptu gambling scene in a Super Bowl suite between Nicky and an Asian tycoon played brilliantly by B.D. Wong.

Will Smith's performance in Focus is one of his best in years. (Warner Bros.)
Will Smith’s performance in Focus is one of his best in years. (Warner Bros.)

But Nicky, of course, likes his women like his merchandise: hot. His relationship with Jess Barrett, played by Margot Robbie – also known as the super hot chick from The Wolf of Wall Street – turns what would have been an above average film into a very good one.

The chemistry between Smith and Robbie, who would easily win the Oscar for best looking in a bikini, is evident in this sexy, sleight-of-hand drama. The duo bonds instantly as the result of an awkward bedroom scene, as the veteran Nicky teaches rookie con artist Jess how to go from small-time pickpocket to big-time hustler.

This works because of how effortlessly Nicky and Jess can steal and manipulate. Other than making sure Robbie is in plenty of scenes with little clothing, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s best decision was hiring Apollo Robbins, a deception specialist to make sure Smith and Robbie don’t look like bumbling idiots.

Focus ends up being a smooth, 104-minute romantic caper that keeps the audience guessing before reaching one conclusion: Will Smith is definitely back.