3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, sensuality and brief violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.27.15
Heist flicks rely on two essential ingredients: a tight, logical script that holds together even as the narrative veers in unexpectedly twisty directions; and — just as important — a sharply constructed cast of characters, played by actors who approach this material with sincerity and conviction.
In other words, actors who don’t preen from one scene to the next, undercutting the tension and suspense we desire from the genre.
Ideal scripts, in turn, need to be clever on three levels: the core storyline — in other words, the actual caper(s) — which should be intriguing, unusual and introduced with zest; the inevitable “unexpected” glitch that complicates matters, and which the filmmakers usually expect us viewers to anticipate; and, finally, the genuinely surprising second twist, which nobody sees coming, and which leaves us nodding with admiration.
Hats off to the writing/directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, then, because Focus delivers on all counts. Heist thrillers are one of my favorite genres; I’ve seen scores of good ones, and therefore usually anticipate all manner of revelations, hiccups and gotchas.
And yet Ficarra and Requa startled me, with their devious, eleventh-hour eyebrow-raiser. Well done.
On top of which, they’ve assembled ideal talent, starting with smooth-as-silk Will Smith, whose every word, deed, gesture and wary expression denote career larceny. He’s perfectly cast as the sophisticated Nicky Spurgeon, a seasoned master of misdirection, who deploys and unerringly supervises a veritable squadron of sharps, pick-pockets and thieves at crowded, high-profile events such as conventions and parades.
Smith is well matched by Margot Robbie’s Jess Barrett, a frisky blonde with a sensual wiggle, who worms her way into Nicky’s crew with the sort of breathy admiration and flirty innocence that Marilyn Monroe perfected, back in the day. Robbie will be remembered as Leonaro DiCaprio’s seductively controlling wife in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and let’s just say that she’s equally alluring here.
And just as unpredictable. Indeed, Jess wears “devious” like the slinky, skin-tight dresses into which Robbie gets poured; we can’t help wondering about her end game, from the moment she catches Nicky’s attention.
But, then, we also don’t expect him to be candid with her, so the question revolves around who’s likely to get played, and how quickly.
Meanwhile, Smith and Robbie — both dripping with sensual savoir-faire — circle each other with a playfully erotic grace that wholly eluded the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey.