Is Will Smith a timeless figure in Hollywood?

For the better part of the last decade and a half or so, Smith’s temperament in film has been that of a savior. A cool hand figure who yells, grunts, cracks a bit of wise but ultimately saves the day in a myriad of dystopian futures. Even through the sluggish disaster that was After Earth, there was Smith, sitting in a chair asking his young son Jaden to carry a movie that the elder would have normally crushed. Instead, poor box office and a movie critically panned shipped Smith off into temporary obscurity. Somehow, in some cruel way, we had started to move away from The Fresh Prince.

That Prince, originally was a thief in 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation. He was lauded for his guile, for his willingness to play gay in a normally straight man’s world. “Go down with the lie,” his latest film extorts. The lie for a long period of time was that if you plugged Smith into any big budget film in July, you were guaranteed $100 million in ticket purchases and receipts. It almost became religion to see Will Smith do his thing at the box office in the summer months. Now, much like Tiger Woods, we just want him to return to form in some form or capacity.

When we arrived to Focus, Smith’s latest entry into the box office world, his eyes for the duration tell a story of a man, virile and ripped but old. He’s moving into the DiCaprio realm of artists long considered talented beyond measure but unable to finally secure that rightful recognition that a major award usually covets. He’s 46, though he may not truly look a day anywhere near 40. It’s why a film like Focus, in which he plays master con man Nicky Spurgeon can have him move into a world where finally, it’s not his gruffness or constant search for more that wins audiences over — but his charm.

Though those looks and glances are classic Smith, he’s asked to pull a young actress like Margot Robbie into his sense of gravity. She’s already proved through a steamy tet-a-tet with DiCaprio in the Scorcese “get rich or burn everyone trying” 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street that she can handle being a strong leading woman. Here she’s a clumsy, almost aloof thief on the rise named Jess, armed with stunning good looks and an appetite for more. When she and Nicky first meet, it’s almost by chance. She uses him to escape from her boyfriend and thanks to Smith’s charm and need to pull even more out of a female lead to play off and when he does, after a near night in bed – he pulls down her dress to see she wears zero clothes.

“You suck,” he offers a critique of her thieving talents after a man barges in, attempts to rob Smith but he’s already hip to the game by a mile. She, enamored by wanting to be better, learns under Smith as an understudy. Our “there’s the girl” story moves along from there.

Focus wants to arm Smith and Robbie in the same fashion of Grace Kelly & Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, a young star and a debonair master player always looking for another big score. There’s carefully crafted shots and angles of New Orleans (with some beautifully choreographed pick-pocketing to drive home the point of watch everything in New Orleans), the crisp snow in New York where Nicky & Jess make initial contact, of Smith’s face as he lures everyone in, including the audience on a master con he pulls at the biggest sporting event of the year, going mano-a-mano with an even more compulsive gambler (BD Wong). His aides, almost deadpan comic relief in the form of Brennan Brown (Horst) & Adrian Martinez (Farhad) are wonderful sidekicks, never left to seem small in the grander scheme of things. There’s glitz, glamour, fast cars and plenty of suspenseful intrigue, most of it being our reaction to the comedy on screen. Yet in true Smith fashion, things end in a twisted form of happy because Will Smith, the showman has never been one to truly let fans walk home in disgruntled heaps.

Not since Hitch in 2005 has Smith been asked to carry a movie solely on acting chops, bravado and little action. Thanks to the writer/director tandem of Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (Crazy, Stupid Love), Smith can be crafty. He & Robbie have definite chemistry, even if things may sour here or there. Focus wants to capture Will Smith mixing both of his youthful appeal sexually and his mental guile that’s come with age. It succeeds at both. Does it succeed at repairing Smith for one more glory run? Perhaps, but that’s a con you’ll have to believe yourself.

Movie Review: The Great Con Of 'Focus'
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