Friday, February 27, 2015

Focus: A sharply conceived caper

Focus (2015) • View trailer 
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.

Having pulled off yet another successful con, Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie)
realize that they make a pretty good team. But their increasing fondness for each other, on
a personal level, threatens the objectivity that's essential in their nefarious line of work...
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.

Nicky and Jess “meet cute” when she rather clumsily attempts to rob him at a New York hotel. Far from angry, he acknowledges her pluck and shares a few tricks of his trade.

“It’s about distraction,” he explains. “It’s about focus. The brain is slow, and it can’t multi-task. Tap him here, take from there.”

He wishes her well, then bids adieu.

A bit later, while setting up an ambitious scheme during the crowded final days leading up to a fan-frenzied football game in New Orleans, Nicky isn’t surprised to see that Jess has tracked him down. She’s initially smug, then dismayed to discover that he expected her: something of an initiation test.

Serious schooling subsequently takes place in a blur, as Nicky and his colleagues coach her the arts of diversion, stealthy fingers and hand-offs. Needless to say, Jess is plenty diverting in her own amply displayed skin — a series of wonderfully sexy dresses from costume designer Dayna Pink — and takes to her “lessons” with alacrity and aplomb.

Ficarra, Requa and editor Jan Kovac assemble this sequence superbly: a marvelous montage of unsuspecting tourists fleeced right under their own noses, in a wide variety of settings and via engaging variations on the same larcenous theme. (It’ll make you think twice about maintaining a death-grip on your valuables, next time you maneuver through a popular, well-attended public event.)

But there’s a problem: Nicky knows that he’s falling for Jess, a potential hazard in an occupation where, in his own words, “love will get you killed.”

And so they go their separate ways.

Three years pass, and we catch up to Nicky in Buenos Aires, as he prepares to execute a complicated con against millionaire Spanish racing tycoon Rafael Garríga (Rodrigo Santoro). Garríga believes they’re working together to fleece rival race car mogul McEwen (Robert Taylor); in reality, Nicky intends to hustle both men.

But there’s a problem: Garríga’s head of security, Owens (Gerald McRaney), doesn’t trust Nicky. Owens is an old-school handler with a nose for duplicity, and his tart dialogue exchanges with Nicky are to die for. Indeed, McRaney pretty much steals his every scene: no easy task, when surrounded by Smith and Robbie.

And there’s also a surprise: Garríga’s girlfriend turns out to be — goodness gracious — Jess.

What, Nicky wonders, is she doing there? (Unknown.) And has he really gotten over her? (Unlikely.) And will her distracting presence screw things up? (Unquestionably.)

What follows is ... delectable.

Adrian Martinez is a hoot as Farhad, Nicky’s hulking computer expert and best friend. Farhad is beyond vulgar, but Martinez delivers his crude dialogue with such a jovial twinkle, that we can’t helping chuckling at the results. BD Wong is enjoyably outrageous as a well-heeled businessman with a penchant for extreme bets, and a condescending manner that gets under Nicky’s skin.

Brennan Brown establishes a nice presence as Horst, one of Nicky’s trusted lieutenants, who serves as Jess’ mentor during her apprenticeship phase. Sadly, Horst isn’t needed during the story’s second and third acts, and Brown is missed.

Taylor, recognized by mystery fans as Sheriff Walt Longmire in the eponymous TV series, gets to display his actual Australian accent as the larcenous McEwen, eager to one-up a detested rival. Santoro, in turn, is appropriately smooth as the refined and über-wealthy Garríga, whose desire to win under any circumstances includes a willingness to bend both rules and the law. This makes him the perfect mark for Nicky, forever adept at exploiting a target’s weakness.

Composer Nick Urata delivers an engaging orchestral score that is intoxicating and mildly sinister by turns: ideal for this material, particularly during the New Orleans-based “hustlers’ montage.”

Focus marks an intriguing departure for Ficarra and Requa, until now best known for impudent burlesques such as Bad Santa and I Love You Phillip Morris: broad comedies that certainly don’t possess the sleek sophistication so engagingly displayed here. That said, they also directed 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love — albeit with Dan Fogelman scripting — which gently spoofed a similar degree of romantic sophistication, while building to its own unexpected, third-act bolt from the blue ... so maybe this gentle caper thriller isn’t such a stretch.

Smith certainly owns this film, granting it the surface polish that makes these nefarious proceedings go down with such élan. But he also owes Ficarra and Requa for their clever narrative foundation, along with the deliciously piquant dialogue.

The result is a lot of fun: always the best compliment for a well-constructed heist flick.

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