It’s nearly impossible to make a modern heist movie without referencing, paying homage to, or simply borrowing ideas from George Roy Hill’s “The Sting” (1973). 2015’s “Focus” is no different, though a few notable elements set the film a cut above the competition. Namely, the entire picture is suffused with an ample dose of humor, keeping the constant double-crosses airily artful without layering an oppressive dread over the inevitability of adversity catching up to the exuberant criminals. This is a particularly challenging feat for a 21st century setting.
“Focus” also unfolds its tale of crime competently and with finesse, always careful not to make the audience feel inferior for being unable to anticipate the twists. Similarly, the structuring refuses to undermine viewer intelligence with repetitious recollections and unsubtle explanations. Many of the film’s ploys are too intricate to guess the outcomes initially (requiring the standard flashback), while a few loose ends don’t tidy themselves up neatly, but it’s still refreshing not to have to witness the entire set-up re-visualized in humiliating detail at the conclusion.
When seasoned con man Nicky (Will Smith) encounters amateur pickpocket Jess (Margot Robbie), he’s immediately intrigued by her charm and enthusiasm. Agreeing to take her on as something of a protégé, Nicky teaches Jess to hone her prowess at deception and thievery so that the duo can transition from simple wallet snatches to complex scams involving an entire team of swindlers. But as Nicky steadily falls for Jess, and the two find themselves on opposite sides of a dangerous scheme to defraud a billionaire racecar owner (Rodrigo Santoro), they must learn to trust each other in order to pull off the biggest con of their careers.
It’s difficult for any heist movie to avoid comparisons to the most commercially popular examples of the genre (led by Best Picture Oscar winner “The Sting”). Here, “Focus” is unable to distance itself incommensurably from the suspenseful sloppiness and unraveling of the crew from “The Killing” (1956) or from the meticulousness of “Catch Me If You Can” (2002). Even the ideas of training an apprentice or honing the skills of an amateur aren’t immune to reminiscence. And yet, thanks to an unwavering tone full of light-hearted characters and mildly thematic scenarios, “Focus” is pleasantly engaging. The heartbreak is moderate, the violence slight, and the sense of danger enjoyably feeble.
“Congratulations … you’re a criminal.” As with hacker movies and even paranormal frighteners, “Focus” sheds a bit of light onto subject matter that will certainly heighten paranoia toward getting pickpocketed or defrauded. The protagonists are not the clean-cut crooks from “Ocean’s Eleven,” seemingly robbing only from evil moguls who deserve retribution; instead, they’re cutpurses who swipe credit cards and wallets in particularly detestable scams. Fortunately, a diverting romance gets in the way of the usual backstabbing partners and untrustworthy accomplices and the appearance of a ruthlessly severe villain – which should positively exist (but doesn’t) in this contemporary world of high-stakes corporate espionage. Additionally, plenty of unpredictable sequences, twisty revelations, and humorous conversations (Adrian Martinez is a highlight for the comedy relief inclusions) make “Focus” a surprisingly entertaining thriller that is clever enough not to be foreseeable and lively enough not to be conventional.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)