Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Movie Review: Focus (2015)

If I was asked a few short years ago what I thought of Will Smith, I would have said that he is one of the coolest and most charismatic actors in Hollywood. Nowadays, I’m more likely to say that he was cool and charismatic but After Earth ruined him for me. Yeah, I’m willing to stick up for him for lesser works like Hancock, I, Robot and even I Am Legend, but his usual smooth delivery being reduced to a complete drone thanks to M. Night Shyamalan kind of spoiled the fun for me as well as cementing Shyamalan officially as one of the worst directors in my book. Sure, my opinion of Smith picked back up slightly after his surprisingly nice turn in Winter’s Tale but… well, quite frankly, he was the only good thing about that turd of a movie. Then the trailers for this film hit and there was a spark of that old Will Smith on the screen; colour me excited to say the least. So, will this be the great redeemer or just another let-down? This is Focus.

The plot: Nicky (Will Smith) is a seasoned con-man who knows all the tricks of the trade. After putting the kibosh on a con done by amateur thief Jess (Margot Robbie), the two start working together. However, Nicky has always believed that love should never get in the way of a good con and starts to drift away from her, instead working on a con for racing team owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). When Nicky and Jess find each other again, Nicky has to maintain his work ethics and continue with his plans… even though he may not be the only one in on the con.

In all honesty, this might be some of the best casting for Will Smith in his entire career. Even in his worst films, aside from the aforementioned sin against all things existent, he has this uncanny ability to convince the audience to buy into whatever he happens to be selling regardless of whether it’s of actual worth or not (Insert joke about him being executive producer for last year’s disastrous Annie remake here), which is essentially what his entire character revolves around. Will’s style on camera is back with a vengeance, almost as if he’s using all the reserves in his tanks that he didn’t get a chance to utilize in his previous films, and even when his schemes get a little too convoluted at times, he never falters and always manages to deliver his dialogue with that welcoming persona that has made him the icon that he is. This is greatly helped by his pairing with Margot Robbie, who plays off against and occasionally matches Smith’s cockiness beat for beat while also being very convincing as the na├»ve amateur initially. It doesn’t hurt that they have seriously good romantic chemistry together; during the first act, they stand as one of the most natural on-screen couplings I’ve seen in a very long time. They’re also backed by a damn good supporting cast: Adrian Martinez brings a surprising amount of charm to his character’s crude and highly sexualized sense of humour and does great as Smith’s friend and partner Farhad, B.D. Wong may be wandering dangerously close to the border between character and caricature but his portrayal of the gambler Liyuan added a lot to his core scene, Brennan Brown delivers his character’s extremely dry dialogue with just the right punch to accompany Smith as his right-hand man Horst, and Gerald McRaney as Garigga’s head of security Owens counter-acts Smith’s cool with just plain burning badassitude; it’s great seeing Gerald being put to good use and not in sappy romantic tripe like The Best Of Me.

In all honesty, Smith’s turn here is just that good that he could have probably helped carry the entire film on his own, with minor assistance from the rest of the cast. However, he doesn’t need to because this is a script that deals with one of my favourite subjects and does so remarkably well: Mind games. The explanations put into how Nicky’s schemes work, from the smaller pickpocketings to the bigger cases of larceny, to the detail put into said schemes is absolutely gorgeous. Yeah, it may be more than a little convoluted but the pieces just fit together that well that it ultimately doesn’t matter. The best example of this is the scene with Liyuan, which involves events that are so good that I don’t even want to hint at what it involves; rest assured, though, it is amazing to witness unfold. Nicky’s character is shown having the skills needed to pull these feats off nailed and the production follows suit with an extremely slick presentation of these events that show off an almost beautiful clockwork efficiency  to how his team operates. Legendary master of sleight-of-hand Apollo Robbins was brought as a consultant and his expertise wasn’t wasted for a moment as these are very well choreographic and thought-out scenes.

However, as much as I can ignore how overblown quite a few of these grifts can be, this film unfortunately falls into the same trap that an awful lot of films like this get into: Focusing too much on fooling the audience and not the characters. Numerous times in this film, there are scenes that narratively have no reason to be shown except for throwing the audience off and setting up an upcoming twist, even though said scenes can make said twists a little problematic and open up some plot holes in the process. It’s a bit of fridge illogic I’ll admit, as this doesn’t necessarily come across in its entirety while watching it for the most part. In a way, the film itself operates a bit like a magic act or even a playful bit of theatrical pickpocketing: You know that what you’re seeing isn’t as fantastical as it really seems, and in some cases isn’t even real at all, but the presentation by the people on and off-stage make you ignore that and just enjoy the spectacle; in short, what good filmmaking is capable of in the right hands.

This has a very down tempo and mellow soundtrack that perfectly accompanies the events on screen: Lots of lounge numbers and smooth jazz tunes, along with a couple of classic rock tunes to punctuate a few moments. Hell, the music itself ends up playing into the proceedings of one of the scenes and makes it even better (No spoilers on which one though). Major props to Nick Urata for not only his great song selections for the soundtrack, but also for his original contributions as well that only increase the suave and sophisticated atmosphere that permeates this film. Windmills Of My Mind is going to haunt me for a bit after hearing it here, but the song’s that great that I’m happy for it.


All in all, this is a very slick and stylish affair, anchored by Smith and Robbie’s fantastic performances in the lead roles. The supporting cast are fantastic, the writing is witty while still getting some good emotional beats on occasion, the soundtrack is superb and the overall production has the efficacy to mesh it all together to provide a damn good watch. This has officially restored my faith in Will Smith’s abilities as an actor and I eagerly await his portrayal in the film Concussion which will be coming out later this year. I rank it higher than Still Alice, as while Smith doesn’t come close to touching Moore’s outstanding performance in that film, the overall production is more balanced in terms of quality. However, it didn’t sit as well with me as Selma, which connected with me on a more emotional level than this film managed to. For fans of the old Will Smith who want to put those nightmares of Cypher Raige to rest, I definitely recommend checking this one out.

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