The problem for a good heist/con movie is that it keeps raising the bar on itself as it goes. The more clever the setup, the more intricate the deceit, the more we demand a slam-bang finale. (The perfect example, 20 years later, is still “The Usual Suspects.”)
“Focus” begins so elegantly, wittily and quickly that it sets up expectations it can’t quite fulfill. Yet if not every coincidence can be explained, if not every improbability gets addressed, it’s a satisfying diversion in a winter which, as usual, has too few of them.
Will Smith, urbane and unflappable, becomes your guide to a world of pickpockets, ATM scammers, bet-riggers and outright thieves. He plays Nicky, who oversees a small corporation of crime that follows moneyed suckers to sporting events.
When bumbling, likable Jess (Margot Robbie of “The Wolf of Wall Street”) tries to set him up, he’s amused enough to become a one-time mentor. She follows him to the Super Bowl and wangles her way into Nicky’s pack and heart. He won’t mix pleasure and business, and he dumps her after paying off her cut of the profits. Imagine his surprise when their paths cross three years later, as he’s about to rip off a zillionaire race team owner in Argentina (Rodrigo Santoro).
Writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa keep us guessing about loyalties, intentions and affiliations. We’re never sure how much Nicky has told Jess at any time – he likes to keep her ignorant of details, so her behavior seems more natural to people he’s cheating – or what he feels for her. We also know Nicky’s addicted to gambling, so his behavior in certain situations may be genuine.
Smith and Robbie keep the alternating current of affection and alienation flowing constantly; we root for them to stay together while knowing neither can fully trust the other. He’s more open around his colleagues in crime, efficient Horst (Brennan Brown) and gross but brilliant Farhad (Adrian Martinez).
Ficarra and Requa direct some fascinating sequences, including a long, brisk montage of illegal acts that shows us how Nicky’s team operates. They also avoid two of the genre’s typical flaws: femme fatale clichés and the absurd, against-all-odds reversal at the end.
They do stack the deck by making all the marks stupid, lecherous, petulant or mean; Nicky’s crew never strips a person we might like, which could make them seem heartless. (As, of course, they are.)
And the filmmakers struggle with explanations after events. Jess’ relationship with the rich Argentinian doesn’t make sense once we understand it, and the climax of the film seems not only impossible but slightly silly: We’re meant to laugh with it, at least in part, but you may end up laughing at it.
They get props, though, for casting people who too seldom end up in movies: Gerald McRaney and B.D. Wong have fewer than 10 total big-screen credits over the last decade, but they enliven “Focus” as an irritable bodyguard and a lip-licking gambler who’ll bet on anything that moves.
B Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney
Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Length: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Rating: R (language, sexual content, brief violence)
Cary: Crossroads. Chapel Hill: Lumina, Timberlyne. Durham: Southpoint, Wynnsong. Park West. Raleigh: Mission Valley, Six Forks, Carmike, Grande, North Hills, Brier Creek, Wakefield.