“Never drop the con. Die with the lie.” is the mantra of third generation confidence man Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith). Running a small, but skilled crew of pickpockets and con artists, Nicky’s structured life becomes complicated when he meets Jess Barrett (Margo Robbie) while posing as a famous chef at a hotel bar in New York City. Unaware that he can see her scam coming from a mile away, Jess selects Nicky to be her knight in shining armor when trying to evade the unwanted advances of another guy at the bar. Seeing potential in the young woman, and after much convincing on her part, Nicky agrees to become her mentor and takes her to a football championship match in New Orleans to conduct a series of minor cons to test her skills.
Due to the large number of unaware marks arriving in town for the big game, the week proves very successful for Nicky’s entire crew. However, after romantic sparks begin to fly between Nicky and Jess, compromising his rule to never get emotionally involved with fellow criminals, Nicky reluctantly decides it is best for everyone if Jess goes her separate ways from the team. Fast-forward three years, Nicky is now working for Spanish race team owner Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) in Buenos Aries. Garriga has new technology that he is looking to implement into the motorsport circuit, however, one team owner, McEwen (Robert Taylor), is standing in his way.
Devising an elaborate ruse with Garriga to deal with the disgruntle owner, Nicky’s plans are turned upside down when Jess shows up as Garriga’s girlfriend. Trying to navigate both the con and his feelings for Jess under the watchful eyes of both Garriga’s heavy Owens (Gerald McRaney) and McEwen’s muscle Jared (Dominic Fumusa), Nicky finds himself in a desperate race to stay one step ahead before the walls close in on him for good.
Writers/Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa present a fast-paced caper that hits the ground running from the opening frame of the film. The story does an excellent job of detailing the transient nature of the world in which con artists exist. Key scenes do not take place in offices or homes, but rather hotel bars and restaurants. Places where people, much like con artists themselves, rarely stay for long periods of time. Cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet paints a lavish portrait of wealth and excess through a colour palette full of crisp blues and greys. Grobet’s work helps to enhance sequences, such as the one where Nicky’s crew pulls off multiple cons in a short span of time, which explore the intricacies of the confidence game. Credit for this delicate ballet of trickery must also go to Apollo Robbins, who served as both a consultant and choreographer for the sleight-of-hand sequences.
Will Smith is solid as Nicky, even incorporating a few trademark mannerisms, but his performance does leave the lingering feeling that he could have gone a bit further with the role. Margot Robbie, on the other hand, continues her accession up the Hollywood ranks with her great work in the film. She handles the role of Jess well, switching back and forth from naive intern to junior con artist to possibly being more important to Nicky than she initially lets on. Another pleasant surprise is the work of Gerald McRaney whose crusty demeanor, and general distaste for the lack of work ethic of Nicky’s generation, helps to keep the second half of the film moving.
Filled with plenty of twists and turns, Focus is an entertaining and layered film that will keep audiences on their toes. Conveying both style and substance, this is a film that I can recommend.