“I can convince anyone of anything,” says Nicky Spurgeon in Focus, and since he’s played by Will Smith, the man is not boasting. The con in con man is short for confidence: what he radiates, and what he extracts from his marks before fleecing them. The blithe smile, the easy authority: that’s Smith since his Fresh Prince days.
What’s odd is that in most of his movies–from the time he sauntered into action stardom with Independence Day, through a decade of dystopian sci-fi roles in I, Robot; I Am Legend; Hancock; and the misfortune known as After Earth–he’s been obliged to glower, macho-man-style, as if Bruce Willis hadn’t already patented the stoic scowl. So writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have to be credited with a little wisdom in letting Smith be Smith in Focus, the star’s first charm barrage since the 2005 Hitch.
Nicky runs a con outfit of 20 or so filchers who work casinos, racetracks, football games–any place where cocky rich guys can be separated from their loot. He’s on hiatus when he meets the creamy blonde Jess Barrett (The Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie), who pulls a clumsy ruse that he plays along with simply from professional curiosity. Out of her league but a quick study, Jess learns to pick the pockets of smitten strangers and earns her bona fides. She’s now ready to be Nicky’s partner, and perhaps rival, in con.
The dapper-con genre, which includes The Lady Eve and The Sting, with a brief recent revival in Now You See Me, demands of its audience only that it fall for the flimflam, as Nicky’s marks do. The big gamble in Focus: it’s a Will Smith movie that dares to be small. It leads its stars into glamorous peril with a zillionaire gambler (B.D. Wong) and an Argentine race-car mogul (Rodrigo Santoro) in games where no one can be trusted.
Ficarra and Requa, who pulled off a more brazen act of sex and treachery in I Love You Phillip Morris, here just want to have and provide a good time. Which they do. They’ll even take an R rating for the fun of some raunchy wit spouted by one of Nicky’s pals (Adrian Martinez). Robbie, who suggests a high-end knockoff of the young Michelle Pfeiffer, adds to the film’s genial sense that everything, including star quality, is a con.
Except for Smith. He’s still the real deal.
This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.