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Con Me if You Can

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Frank Masi/Warner Brothers Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
Focus (2015)

After the critical drubbing given to the flawed but earnest “After Earth,” Will Smith returns with “Focus,” playing a character that seems like natural territory for one of Hollywood’s most charismatic leading men. Mr. Smith is Nicky, a quick-witted veteran con artist who recruits inexperienced crook Jess (Margot Robbie) to join his team of professional thieves, with things quickly getting personal between the two of them when romance blossoms.

Viewers have surely grown wise to the tricks in con films and so inevitably wait for the rug to be pulled from under them here. A couple of early sequences in New Orleans rely on bluffs and misdirection, playing on viewers’ crime-movie expectations; and then the film comes up with some surprises, which — while far-fetched — are amusing and inventive.

What starts out as another glitzy tour through the crime business with a series of elaborate capers soon changes tack, choosing instead to focus on the relationship between two leads. While a big score is set up in Buenos Aires, the film is aware of the clichés — with Nicky earlier mocking the very same crime story staple — and events do not play out as expected.

Sleight of hand is also built into the film’s shots. Both Nicky and Jess are seen reflected in mirrors at the start of scenes before they are revealed directly on screen, a disorientating device and a nice visual cue for viewers to not trust everything they see. While the locations and lifestyles are lavish, the camera rarely lingers over the riches on display. The focus is on the characters and their dilemmas rather than the glittering world around them.

At one point, Mr. Smith’s character, Nicky, says he has changed; and it is clear that Mr. Smith has, too. After “Hitch,” it seems that the actor reached a turning point in his career, moving on from the type of wisecracking, self-assured leading men that made his name — seen in “Bad Boys,” “Men in Black” and “Independence Day” — to play more introspective, vulnerable roles. Mr. Smith has mellowed into an older, wiser performer, unafraid to portray wearier and warier characters. Here, Nicky grows dependent on Jess as a partner in life, not crime; and he cannot just charm or joke his way out of every tight spot.

Ms. Robbie makes her character smart and naive, but not stupid; she is attracted to Nicky but also doubtful and questioning of him. Jess has a narrower focus on small-time crimes, while Nicky always looks at the bigger picture — that is until he meets Jess, and then he narrows his focus to her. The film cements Ms. Robbie as a lead actress and shows that Mr. Smith is willing to develop his established star persona. The fact that viewers will care about these crooks is not just down to the charisma of the leads, but also because there is something at stake, with the film showing that a successful life of crime can come at a heavy cost.

This is more of a charming romantic drama like “The Thomas Crown Affair” (either version) and “Out of Sight” than the more cynical, flashy capers seen in the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy, a feeling confirmed when “The Windmills of Your Mind” plays over the end credits. While “Focus” initially seems like a breezy, escapist romance, it is actually quite raw and occasionally brutal — both emotionally and physically — turning what could have just been a fun, lightweight diversion into something a bit more substantial and memorable.

FOCUS

Opens on Feb. 27

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; director of photography, Xavier Grobet; edited by Jan Kovac; music by Nick Urata; production design by Beth Mickle; costumes by Dayna Pink; produced by Denise Di Novi; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Will Smith (Nicky), Margot Robbie (Jess), Rodrigo Santoro (Garríga), Gerald McRaney (Owens), Adrian Martinez (Farhad), Robert Taylor (McEwen) and BD Wong (Liyuan).

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