“Die with the lie.”
That’s the motto of third-generation grifter Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) in the new romantic drama, “Focus.” It’s how far you sometimes have to take a con — like, for instance, the so-called “Toledo Panic Button,” in which you shoot your partner to prove you’re not colluding with them.
Spurgeon is a veteran con man who takes under his wing newbie Jess Barrett (“Wolf of Wall Street” spouse Margot Robbie). She makes a nice addition to his boost team in New Orleans, where they pick tourists clean during a Super Bowl weekend.
So good is this bunch, he brags, “they can lift your appendix.”
The two break afterwards but meet again a few years later in Buenos Aires, where both are targeting a billionaire playboy.
The worst I heard about this film going in was that it had too many twists, which for a sting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It moves at a crisp pace and commands your full attention, which isn’t hard. The vibe is hip and the action riveting.
Unfortunately, this one peaks too soon. Spurgeon’s exchange in the stadium skybox with a Chinese compulsive gambler played by B.D. Wong (“The Freshman,” “Father of the Bride”) is handily the most intense moment in the film. It comes in the first act and suggests a trajectory that would put this one atop the best in the genre (see sidebar). But the film fails to sustain the momentum and plateaus its way to mediocrity.
“Focus” tosses-in a quixotic relationship that neither seem to be invested in. Are they symbiotic or just conning each other? It makes for more guessing and misdirection but moviegoers aren’t marks and on a few occasions I felt like one, asking myself, “What just happened?”
Throughout, Smith comes-off as sullen, which is not an entertaining attribute. His career is long past the “A game” scale. These days he’s on a pass/fail system (“I am Legend,” pass; “Men in Black 3,” fail; “After Earth,” epic fail). This one’s definitely middle-of-the-pack.
Robbie’s part is more problematic. Any number of actresses could be smart and fetchingly distracting, beyond that she adds as much substance as a Bond Girl, though it’s not her fault the plot doesn’t let her shine.
Gerald McRaney (TV’s “Major Dad” and “House of Cards”) costars as the billionaire’s enforcer, but the standout is the likable Adrian Martinez in a relatively minor role: #55.
Med City Movie Guy’s rating: 3 Honks