Wednesday 22 November 2017

Focus review: Will Smith phones it in in another lame thriller

Paul Whitington

Will Smith recently admitted to being shaken to the core by the failure of his 2013 blockbuster, After Earth, which tanked in America and was rubbished by the critics. "A thing got broken in my mind," he said recently, his pain no doubt compounded by the fact that After Earth co-starred his son, Jaden, and was produced by his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Worse than that, though, was the notion that the man once known as 'Mr Fourth of July' and 'Big Willie Weekend' had finally lost his magic box office touch.

2*

Time was Will's name above the credits seemed to be enough to guarantee a blockbuster's success, and his easy charm and light comic touch made him Hollywood's most bankable star. But as Smith has got older, the gloss has started to wear thin: following his turn in the worthy and pompous 2008 drama Seven Pounds, he disappeared for four years before popping up in the competent sequel, Men in Black 3. Perhaps he's lost interest in films, or maybe Smith is becoming harder to cast, but one can see what appealed to him about this latest project, because on the face of it Focus must have seemed like a walk in the park.

His character, Nicky Spurgeon, is a slick, stylish conman who knows all the angles. He's in a fancy restaurant one night when he meets a beautiful young woman called Jess (Margot Robbie). They hit it off, she invites him back to her hotel room, and they're just getting down to business when an angry man bursts in waving a gun and claiming to be her husband. Nicky laughs at them because he knows they're hustlers, and leaves without giving them anything.

But he's intrigued by Jess's beauty and spirit, and when she follows him to New Orleans he decides to let her in on a pick-pocketing operation he and his partners are running in advance of the SuperBowl.

Jess proves a skilful thief, her speciality being wristwatches. But after they pull off a spectacular betting con on a reckless Asian businessman, Nicky decides that Jess is getting too close to him, and drops her.

Three years later he's in Buenos Aires planning an elaborate scam on a billionaire Formula One mogul called Garriga when Jess re-enters his life with a bang. She's Garriga's girlfriend, and while Nicky still loves Jess, she seems to be out for revenge.

On paper, Focus sounds like the kind of slight and frothy comic crime caper that will charm its way to a $200million gross, and its writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa probably fondly imagine it's full of witty twists and turns. In previous films such as Crazy, Stupid, Love and the woefully underrated I Love You Phillip Morris, Ficarra and Requa have displayed a flair for quirky and irreverent comedy, but sadly there's little of that bold originality on display here.

Instead we get the hackneyed tropes of this kind of jokey heist nonsense, as beautiful people stand around in exotic locations trading mumbled witticisms and pretending that theft is a victimless crime. Australian actress Margot Robbie fails to capitalise on her stirring appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street, and is pretty forgettable as the flaky, attention-seeking and histrionic Jess.

BD Wong gives it socks as a hysterical, Chinese-American gambler, and veteran character Gerald McRaney is reassuringly solid in a pivotal supporting role, but there's nothing special going on here in the acting department, least of all from Mr Smith.

He strides through Focus with his customary languid swagger, but is not remotely believable as a character.

The problem for Will is that he's charmed his way through half a dozen films like this before, and the super-cool routine is wearing a little thin. And all you get in Focus is a toned body, passable comic timing and that blinding perma-grin it seems impossible to get beyond.

(15A, 105mins)

Irish Independent

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