Everybody loves a good caper movie, right?
Remember the first time you saw the remake of Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, and how unbelievably cool that movie was? Every part of it was cool - the cast, the story, the shooting-style, the jazzy soundtrack, and the Vegas setting.
Remember how since then, movies have been trying to recapture that level of cool? Even Soderburgh tried twice with two Ocean’s sequels, and never quite got there. Haywire is the closest he got, and in term of other heist-type movies, I’m not sure anything has gotten quite there. The Italian job from 2003 is really fun, but not the same level of cool. Heist from 2001 is close, but way too Mamet-y to be cool.
I guess we’ll keep trying. Focus certainly does try, but doesn’t quite get there. Nicky is a con man, who starts the movie in New York City – getting the drop on a young amateur con-artist named Jess, who tried to set him up. He teaches her a few things, then she trails him to New Orleans where he is running some scams during “the big game” (the movie is clearly not NFL sanctioned, who are those teams playing again? The Sharks and somebody else?). Here we as the audience get a tour of Nicky’s operation as he shows it to Jess. He has a crew of almost 30 who are robbing and stealing from everyone and everything they can while the city is teaming with tourists for the game. The most notable are Farhad and Horst who occasionally give Jess little hints at Nicky’s past and upbringing. We learn that he was raised by con-artists, so of course, that’s who he has become. We also get a hint that Nicky has a gambling problem, or does he? Nicky and Jess grow closer over the course of a weekend? A week? A month? It’s not really clear, but they get really close. The multi-cons finish out just as the game starts. Nicky takes Jess to the game, where they hang in a really high-roller suite. They start making little bets about this and that, but then a Chinese business man starts gambling with them, and Nicky promptly gets in over his head – or does he? He finally wins, and while driving away from the stadium, abruptly leaves Jess in the limo and disappears from her life. She seems heartbroken about it.
We then pick up three years later in Buenos Aires during a car race. There’s this race team owner that has developed a big time gas-saving formula that will guarantee him a win, but he and his enforcer want to make sure – so they hire Nicky to con the other teams into getting a false formula. Nicky is just fine running the con until Jess shows up and seems to knock him off his feet – or does she? In any case, they circle around each other a bit – because she is with the guy who just hired Nicky – or is she? She claims she is not really into Nicky anymore, but because he’s so head over heels about her, he keeps trying to woo her with random meets and gifts – and by sending in Farhad. She tries to fight against it, but feels herself being pulled to him. Nicky is getting paid millions by the race guy – and the enforcer stops by to lecture Nicky while dropping off the false formula, or did he? In any case – spoiler alert here – Nicky ends up playing the guy who hired him, and giving the true formula to every other race team and getting paid millions from each – then he grabs Jess and makes it out of town before everyone finds out, or do they?
Yes, I realize that’s a lot of twists, but that’s what the movie feels like. It feels very much like it is trying just a bit too hard to keep you guessing. The direction by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa is certainly decent, and style-wise, it did feel like Crazy Stupid Love, which is another movie directed by Ficarra. I did love all the travel from New York to New Orleans to Buenos Aires. The movie looks good, and everyone in it is decent. It just seems to come up just short of its goal. The cast is decent, and believable.
- This is definitely a Will Smith movie – I don’t know about you, but the first few commercials I saw for this, all I could tell was that it was a Will Smith movie, and had a chick in it – I could not tell what the plot was, or what was happening. Will Smith is fantastic – and easily one of the most charismatic actors working today. In this, he’s a bit subdued, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
- He looks great, I’m in no way arguing that (I certainly appreciated the gratuitous shirtless scenes), but he is 46, and Margot Robbie is 24, and that age difference is significant (are there no actresses his age?).
- Speaking of – Margot Robbie plays Jess. She was in Wolf of Wall Street, and has just landed the Harley Quinn role in Suicide Squad (let’s not start discussing that, that’s an entirely too long discussion). She’s actually Australian, but for some reason in this movie is playing American. In a movie that prides itself on the global-ness of its story and characters; I cannot imagine why they did not simply let her be Australian. She could have then used the American accent as a part of her con-game. Again – Will Smith looks great, but the love scenes between them just kept making me think about the age difference. She’s good in this, for sure, and her star is definitely on the rise, so be on the lookout for more of her. It is a little off-putting that she looks like a tall Jamie Pressley.
- Adrian Martinez plays Farhad, and the truth is – he was one of the most interesting characters. He is sort of the comedy relief (there’s not much of that in the movie), and he’s really watchable.
- Brennan Brown is one of those guys you’ve seen in everything but never really knew his name. He plays Horst, the ringleader of Nicky’s crew – he’s all business.
- BD Wong plays the gambling Chinese businessman with the worst mustache ever that they encounter at “the big game”. He has a really small role, which is a shame, because BD Wong is awesome. I don’t care how many years of Law and Order he did – he’s always going to be that doctor from Jurassic Park who got snarky with Dr. Malcolm about breeding dinosaurs. Here’s hoping he’s in the new one this summer!
- Xerxes, I mean, Rodrigo Santoro, plays the race team owner Garriga. He’s basically just there to get played, but he looks good while doing it.
- Gerald McRaney plays Garriga’s enforcer Owens. He does a really good job, and I loved the scene where he lectures Nicky about “his generation”, and I just kept thinking that Will Smith was probably too old to get a “your generation” lecture from Gerald McRaney. It doesn’t matter, I still enjoyed that.
Overall, the movie is entertaining, but falls just a bit short of what it could have been. For an R – rated movie, I didn’t see much in it that warranted that rating. It’s slick and interesting, but not cool like Ocean’s Eleven, which is the best heist movie of recent times. Also – I did have an issue with buying Nicky as the ‘hero’ of the movie because of the thievery they show him taking part of in New Orleans. I mean, he ripped off a ton of people. That’s not cool. People are going to want their luggage back.
6 out of 10 – it was okay, not bad, but not great. Will Smith was fine, but really – what was the last Will Smith movie you saw that you loved? Gained points for Farhad, and for BD Wong. But – lost points for the age difference between the leads, and for the constant trying-too-hard-twists. Also – lost points for the car crash at the end, because while the guy is driving, we see all the things that Nicky mentioned earlier, but then they do not seemed to be used! That’s cryptic, but will make more sense when you see the movie.
Bonus Video 1: Heist – the aforementioned Mamet caper. If you haven't seen this - check it out. It's pretty good.
Bonus Video 2: Italian Job – the aforementioned Marky Mark caper.
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews.