A veteran grifter takes a young, attractive woman under his wing, but things get complicated when they become romantically involved.
There's that age-old adage in show business: "If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage." In a world that now values special effects over characterization, one would think that might not be the case anymore, but 'Focus' is a perfect example of how a movie without a solid screenplay can fail, even if you have charismatic actors in gorgeous locations with a solid crew doing the behind-the-scenes work.
There's no doubt about the charm and chemistry of the two main actors here. Will Smith plays Nicky, a professional con artist who can play the game better than anyone else, while the stunningly attractive Margot Robbie (who most of you will remember from The Wolf of Wall Street) plays Jess, who we first meet trying to pull her own con on Nicky, only to be shown what an amateur she really is by his more skilled abilities. This teacher/student relationship between the two (which, naturally, also turns romantic) could have proved interesting in a more developed script, but sadly everything in 'Focus' has been seen in other movies dealing with con artists. So as good as these actors are, there's no sense of surprise here – which is the kiss of death in a film where sleight of hand is one of the big draws.
The biggest problem here is that the script doesn't realize that most viewers are going to be prepared for the fact that each scene isn't quite what it appears to be. Again and again the movie sets up one premise, only to reveal at the end of each segment that we've been 'tricked' and the character of Nicky knew exactly what he was doing all along. While these scenes might work for someone who has never seen a film involving a con artist before (the best of which still remains David Mamet's 'House of Games' – where's that Blu-ray release, Criterion?), the majority of viewers will be waiting for the big reveal in each and every one of these segments, meaning that they're rather uninteresting to sit through even the first time one is watching the movie.
The one plot twist that I was hoping for that possibly could have made 'Focus' a better movie is the idea that the character of Jess might actually be smarter and more experienced than she lets on and wind up double crossing Nicky at some point in this movie. While Jess isn't always what she appears to be, the film never allows Will Smith's character to lose control of a situation or be anything less than the smartest man in the room – and that's a shame, both for the actor (Smith is pretty much on cruise control here, not given anything challenging to do) and for the film itself.
If there's any revelation in 'Focus' at all, it's the confirmation that actress Margot Robbie is more than just a pretty face…and a knockout body, but I digress. She's turning into quite the talented actress and reminds me very much of when Michelle Pfeiffer wowed us all with her beauty and acting ability in the 1980s. I'm guessing it won't be long before Ms. Robbie is headlining her own films, and won't have to play second fiddle to actors like Will Smith.
Even with all its problems, 'Focus' is still worth a look thanks to its quality cast, solid direction, and great visuals. However, it's also a good reminder to anyone making a movie that even if you have a quality production team from top to bottom, you better have a good story to tell or the results are going to be less than impressive.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Focus' develops onto home video in this Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack. The dual-layer DVD and 50GB Blu-ray are housed inside an eco-friendly Elite keepcase, which also includes an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet version of the movie. A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase's slick slides overtop.
Both the DVD and the Blu-ray are front-loaded with trailers for 'San Andreas' and the feature film version of 'Entourage'. The DVD also includes an anti-tobacco ad, plus trailers for Run All Night and Get Hard. The main menu on both discs is a standard Warners' design, with a still of the two lead actors (the same one as the box cover) and menu selections running across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is region-free.
Although I may have had some problems with the actual movie, there's no denying that when it comes to video quality, this title is stunning to watch. 'Focus' was directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (with cinematography by Xavier Grobet) using Arri Alexa XT digital cameras. The result is an amazingly sharp picture, full of color and detail. Skin tones are properly balanced, facial features are well defined, and black levels are outstanding. The transfer is free of any problems with aliasing, banding, or other frequently seen issues.
Even if you wind up like me and aren't crazy about the plot, 'Focus' deserves at least one viewing on Blu-ray to take in the beauty of the images. This is not only a reference-quality transfer, but has enough variety of locales and settings to make this the type of disc you throw in your Blu-ray player when you want to show off your system to friends and family.
If the video weren’t impressive enough, I'm happy to report that the English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also reference quality and just as impressive as the visuals. Not only is the audio quite immersive at times, but the mix has a lot of fun with ambient sounds. My favorite bit of playfulness from the track comes when the story takes Will Smith's character into the world of Formula 1 race cars and we can hear the speedy machines zipping from one speaker to the next. A huge chunk of this track has fun moments like that, so if you like a dynamic, active soundtrack, 'Focus' will appeal to you. In terms of any audio glitches, there were none that I detected.
In addition to the lossless English 7.1 track the Blu-ray also includes a 2.0 English Descriptive Video track, plus Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in French, Spanish (Latin), and Portuguese. Subtitles are available in Enlgish, French, Spanish (Latin), and Portuguese.
'Focus' is a beautiful-looking movie, with a beautiful-looking cast in beautiful-looking locations. Sadly, its rather weak and predictable screenplay can't be overcome by the charm of the two lead actors. This is by no means a horrible film, but we've seen this all before…and in better movies. Rent it.