Skip to main content

I am such a disgruntled employee!

Focus
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Will Smith comes full circle. He played a conman in his first big screen lead role, Six Degrees of Separation, and now he’s back at it. As the con genre goes, Focus makes a reasonable stab at how it should be done, particularly after the ridiculous and transparently annoying (and mystifyingly successful) fakery of Now You See Me. Yes, if you pick at its seams, they are bound to unravel, and there are barren patches, but Focus carries the satisfying sense of a hustle well done, even if it is unworthy to sit among the ranks of the modern hustlemeister, David Mamet.


Smith is evidently at a stage in his career where priorities have shifted. He can take hiatuses (this is only his second lead role in seven years), indulge in a spot of nepotism (grooming his son for stardom in After Earth, to the indifference of audiences), do favours for friends (a “can’t be bothered” showing as Lucifer in A New York Winter’s Tale), or generally just show he’s a good sport (his cameo in Anchorman 2). Still, whatever would possess him to team up with mediocre Hollywood conscience merchant Ed Zwick is anyone’s guess, but I guess Smith’s becoming soft in his middle age.


He doesn’t need to do Independence Day 2, and he may yet not end up doing Bad Boys 3. If he fails to pursue his serious actor potential (probably best shown in Ali and the first half of I Am Legend), that’s fine; he’s one of the last genuinely charismatic screen stars and it would be a shame if he went all Bruce Willis on us. The strange thing is, Focus has been sold, or rather mis-sold, as a morality tale along the lines of, say, The Grifters (it’s there in the trailer’s car crash introduction to Smith’s character), which may have unnecessarily turned off audiences. Sure, this isn’t Smith in indulgent Seven Pounds mode (thank goodness!), but he gets to flex his chops as the various ruses require him to weave in and out of whatever emotional state his character (Nicky) may or may not be in at the time. He also gets to be very funny sporadically (one always gets the impression he’s ad-libbing like crazy in his movies). This is perfect casting for a natural charisma machine; there’s enough edge to make it seem slightly out of his comfort zone, but any perceived heaviness of subject matter is only really in the heat of the moment.


The con movie is an eternal favourite, as evidenced by the recent American Hustle (how may movies are going to stick “American” in front of their title post-Sniper, under the mistaken assumption it precludes success?) but it needs to justify its smartness, to keep ahead of the viewer. Knowing the tone is as important. Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men ended up over-fussy, while Rian Johnson’s Brothers Bloom was just too damn whimsical. Then there are the smooth and irresistible Ocean’s Eleven movies, where nothing can really go too wrong. The yardstick, however, is David Mamet, master of pulling the rug from under audiences. He hit the jackpot first time out with House of Games (one could easily imagine Focus’ Brennan Brown filling in for Mamet’s then-favourite Joe Mantegna) and since then hasn’t dazzled quite as brightly, but there’s wrong footing aplenty in such later pictures The Spanish Prisoner and Heist (and those are just the ones that wear the con on their sleeves).


Many of the reviews of Focus have suggested it can’t match Mamet, but I think the issue is not the quality of the cons themselves, but rather the joining tissue.
Big Willie has chosen to graduate to mentor roles, with this and After Earth, but he also wants to eat his leading man cake. The (inadvertent?) consequence of this is that he is paired with the delectable Margot Robbie (Jess), not far from half his age but serving as his love interest. Smith looks great of course, but this is the kind of vanity indulgence you hoped was consigned to the Hollywood of yesteryear, or at worst the latest Bond movie.


Neither Robbie nor Smith can be faulted, but they don’t sizzle together, not in the way that, say Clooney and Lopez do in Out of Sight (admittedly a high water mark for crime movie liaisons). That’s maybe a fault on the part of writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; their leads clearly have a rapport, but there aren’t those crucial extra sparks. The result is, the frequent scenes of Nicky and Jess wooing and canoodling are amiable but uncommanding, and serve to break up the tension of the main meat.


The first scene, as Jess attempts to grift Nicky, to the latter’s amusement, sets up what really ought to be a picture in which the novice eventually becomes a master. But that never happens. Robbie’s is a reacting role, and it falls to her protégée to continually be wowed by Smith’s first class conman. That might be a consequence of the Will Smith package (I don’t know how much this changed between Ryan Gosling being attached and Smith coming on board). As a result, Focus never makes the most of Robbie’s talents, the occasional pickpocketing exercise aside (which itself is all based on her being eye candy). It’s almost as if the only aspect anyone remembered from The Wolf of Wall Street was her all together…


Another problem is the stop-start structure with which Ficarra and Requa have encumbered themselves. To an extent this is justified in keeping Nicky ahead of the game (I should emphasise that, even though I was expecting some twist in most of the sequences, I didn’t spot any of them until they were upon me; the biggest complement I can pay is that during the American Football betting scam, I even thought it was feasible they’d dopey enough to give their lead character a massive gambling problem, so the preceding misdirection worked on me at least). But, when there’s a jump to three years later midway through, it’s a sign that as engineers they haven’t grasped the importance of momentum in this kind of slippery scenario.


The best sequence precedes this, the aforementioned stadium betting. Because we share Jess’ innocence of what is going on, but we suspect something is afoot, numerous possibilities suggest themselves. Is she in on something with super rich gambler Liyuan (B D Wong, superlative, and infectiously energised)? Can Nicky really be this dumb? It isn’t until obligatory tubby sidekick Farhad (Adrian Martinez, foulmouthed and very funny; it’s a certainty that Robbie is genuinely laughing in many of their exchanges) appears in a number 55 team shirt that the grift falls into place.


The big scam, perhaps the one big one from which they can retire that Smith earlier mocks as a myth (although they don’t say as much), is patchy. Centring on Nicky being employed by a motorsport boss (the ever underwhelming Rodrigo Santoro) to fool a rival team into buying a dodgy component (don’t ask me how this is supposed to work in practice), Ficarra and Requa introduce the inevitable spanner in the works of Jess with inevitable satisfaction. This establishing scene, where she disrupts Nicky’s initial plans, throws our trust in his abilities off kilter. It’s clear enough that he is distracted and jealous, so the whole deal could unravel.


So this works in part, requiring one to add up the bits and pieces as one goes along (the scene where Owens, House of Cards’ Gerald McRaney, is sniffing around Nicky’s apartment only makes sense with hindsight), and there’s a superlative sidepiece out of a Tarantino or Coens movie as a heavy enters a hardware store, ostensibly it seem to buy items for torturing his victims, but is then revealed as merely insulating himself for his assault on Nicky’s car; a human crash test dummy. Later, the yarn spun by the tied-up Nicky is entirely convincing in itself.


Unfortunately, the final developments stretch credulity. Not so much the reveal that Owens is Nicky’s dad Bucky and was in on it all along, but his OTT means of solving matters by shooting Nicky in the chest (has no one ever heard of squibs?) An unconvincing scene in which Bucky takes the loot, remonstrating Nicky for being too soft for the game, follows. Which doesn’t make any sense as we’ve seen how good Nicky is. The point, I guess, is there needs to be some sort of cautionary aspect to it, and Will’s uncomfortable being a con hero who steals and gets away with it, at least without a Robin Hood code. So Nicky has a big heart (and is nearly shot through it to discourage impressionable viewers from following him into the crime game), and leaves the life for love.


This isn’t a show stopping Smith comeback vehicle, but it’s more likeable for that. Even though Focus hasn’t been a hit, it’s modestly budgeted and will probably break even in due course. Nothing he has coming up suggests a movie that will knock it out of the park either critically or commercially (I’m doubtful about the behind camera talent on Suicide Squad, Concussion and The American Can), but at least he seems motivated again. He’ll be pairing with Robbie again on Suicide Squad, and I hope she takes advantage of the post Wall Street offers to take more tangible parts than Jane in Tarzan. Whether her repairing with Ficarra and Requa (in the terribly titled war reportage comedy Fun House) is one of those, or Z for Zachariah is (some positive advance word), remains to be seen.


Ficarra and Requa are supported by favoured composer Nick Urata, and cinematographer Xavier Grobet. Editor Jan Kovac keeps the reveals snappy but just the right side of discernable (they need to be snappy so you don’t dwell on the holes). The New Orleans and Buenos Aires locations are shown off for all they’re worth in what is a highly lustrous affair. They’ve clearly gone for the classy angle, but they needed to smooth over their script with a few more drafts. I’ve liked pretty much everything this duo have been involved in, from Cats & Dogs to Bad Santa and earlier directorial outings I Love You Phillip Morris and Crazy Stupid Love. This isn’t up there with either of those latter two, but it’s a respectable addition to the con genre.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.