A loss of focus as ‘fun’ replaces thrill for the cheap shots


The prominence of black actors on our screens in the past few decades is no doubt a victory over racism but some of them seem to have made compromises along the way. One of the most famous black actors of my childhood was Sidney Poitier. Many people referred to Poitier as a “white black man” – this was because he seemed at times to be more bland than ethnic.

Could we say the same of Morgan Freeman? Or Eddie Murphy? What about Danny Glover or Forest Whitaker? Or Jamie Foxx or Cuba Gooding Jnr? Other black stars seem to have more edge: Wesley Snipes, Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Laurence Fishburne.

Will Smith fits more into the Poitier mode, or even that of a latter day Bill Cosby (though Cosby’s cuddly image has been totally blown out of the water after recent revelations concerning his private life). Smith’s movies always seem predictable to me, as he does himself. He seems to get by on auto-pilot. Maybe he’s been spoiled by his good looks. He hasn’t had many stand-out movie roles, contenting himself mainly with light comedy or general escapist fare.

The present venture has him coasting once more. It’s a never-ending plateau that seems to characterise his career.

Focus is one of those convoluted gambling/confidence trick films that reminds you of any number of similar offerings starring middle-of-the-road actors. The plotline seems to have been filched from the leftovers of a dozen screwball B-movies. If you mix the Bruce Willis of Lay the Favourite with the Matthew McConaughey of Two for the Money and sprinkle in some George Clooney from Ocean’s Eleven, you have some idea what to expect.

Smith plays Nicky, a seasoned con man who meets Jess (Margot Robbie) when she’s trying to con him. Operating under the ‘never trick a tricker’ formula, he takes her under his wing. He tries to teach her how best to relieve people of their possessions. Later on he gives her an ingenious lesson on subliminal chicanery at a Super Bowl game. But then, surprise surprise – or rather, not – he begins to fall in love with her. It’s an age-old formula that’s dusted down and re-cycled with only cosmetic variations.

The film is divided into two distinct halves. The first half sets up the Nicky/Bess dynamic to the backdrop of some seriously weird gambling risks with an apparent stranger from China.  The second one finds us in Buenos Aires where Bess has become involved with the dashing race car owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), another potential victim Nicky has in his sights.

I won’t spoil the last reel for you, save to say that it veers from great ingenuity to laughable ridiculousness after a crazy shooting in the last reel. With a ‘Russian doll’ series of twists and counter-twists that seem to disappear into one another with increasing incredibility, Focus finally manages to outsmart only itself.

It could have been a nail-biting thriller, but every time it threatens to become gripping it takes its foot off the gas and opts for fun instead. This means it falls between two stools for most of the time.

Its heart might be with those evergreen classics like To Catch a Thief but the mandatory vulgarity plonks it instead in the ‘modern date movie’ slot. Put your brain under the seat and watch the unlikeliness unfold.


Fair **