When you reach the level of stardom that Will Smith has achieved, it can almost feel like you might have more to lose than gain (except in monetary terms) by embarking on anything as risky as a new film project. And indeed, the multi-hyphenate Smith had been largely absent from our screens over the past five years, until he showed up for last year’s “Men in Black 3,” which we might suggest, in being a sequel to a still-fondly-thought-of franchise, wasn’t the flier that this week’s “After Earth” arguably is.
The Shyamalan movie (our review is here) is a different prospect — it’s not based on a pre-existing property (so no built-in fan base), it’s essentially a two-hander between Smith and, er, Smith Jr., and it’s helmed by a director who has not just not had a hit in a long while, but who has become something of a punching bag; a punchline to a joke about early promise and talent squandered. The weekend’s numbers will start to prove the pudding of whether Smith’s appeal can overcome these handicaps, and will provide us with an interesting index of his current popularity, because Smith really is the film’s sole bankable asset. But with “After Earth” the second “original” high-concept sci-fi tentpole vehicle this summer to have been seemingly wished entirely into existence by its megastar lead (Tom Cruise’s ”Oblivion” being the other) one thing we can state with assurance is that Big Willie’s come a long way from that playground in West Philadelphia.
More than with many stars, it feels like Smith’s immense popularity is based on not just the diversification of his brand into music, movie production, child-star generation — a whole mini-empire — but also the perception of him as a funny, cool, down-to-earth guy; essentially his “Fresh Prince” persona. It helps that he’s immensely likable in interviews and on talk shows too (here he is reteaming with Jazzy Jeff and Carlton on Graham Norton recently) and that in the more blockbustery of his roles he can be relied on to walk the line between aspirational charmer and relatable everyman with easy grace. But because our image of him has so conflated with some of the roles he’s played, it’s easy to forget that he is also an actor — and sometimes he’s stepped out of the wisecracking heroic mode, and been impressive for something other than breezy charm. Here are what we judge are his five best performances that may not all form the defining core of his appeal, but that show tones and tenors to the man that we hope to see more of.
“Six Degrees Of Separation” (1995)
Bravery is not a word that’s been particularly associated with Will Smith’s career in recent years — his riskier potential movies, like “Django Unchained,” came to naught, and he rarely ventures outside his blockbuster tentpole comfort zone unless it’s for a middlebrow drama of some kind. But you couldn’t really accuse him of playing safe when it came to his first major movie role, in Fred Schepisi‘s terrific adaptation of John Guare‘s acclaimed stage play. When he took the part, Smith was a well-established rap star, and three years into “The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air,” so in theory had everything to lose by playing a young man who makes a brief impression on the lives of Manhattan well-to-dos Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing, pretending to be both a friend of their college-age child and the son of Sidney Poitier. In fact, Paul, as he calls himself, is a gay hustler who’s wreaked havoc on multiple lives, and who causes Sutherland and Channing to reconsider their own existence. There was some controversy at the time, and rightly so, because Smith (then 25) had refused to perform a gay kissing scene, though he came to regret it (telling USA Today “I’ve seen the film. It shows. I’ve cheapened myself as an actor… I spoke to Denzel Washington and he said if you’re going to take a role, do what the role calls for.”) But that sour note aside, it’s a bold move for the actor to have made, and remains one of his best performances; his screen presence is cemented in a lengthy monologue (six pages on paper) about “Catcher In The Rye,” and he’s mercurial, vulnerable, erudite and charming throughout the film. It’s not a comparison that’s been made often, but you can see, in this turn at least, why he could be mistaken for Poitier’s son.
Some biopics are going to be better served by casting an unknown in the central role, but that was never going to work for “Ali,” Michael Mann‘s imperfect, uneven, and somewhat neglected 2001 picture. To capture one of the most magnetic and iconic sporting figures of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali, you needed someone with Smith’s star-wattage, and while it wasn’t obvious casting on paper, Smith makes a damn fine case for himself here. The film (scripted by four different writers, including Mann and Eric Roth — and it shows) covers the decade from Cassius Clay’s defeat of Sonny Liston to his victory over George Foreman as Ali, taking in his conversion to Islam, his refusal of the draft and the break-up of his marriage. And as that might sound, it’s sprawling and unfocused, but filled with flashes of fitful greatness, not least in an astonishing opening that marks among Mann’s very finest moments. But at its center is Smith, and he’s kind of extraordinary and makes the film entirely worthwhile. Filled out, bulked up, and with an entirely different physicality, Smith doesn’t quite disappear into the role, although he does a good job capturing Ali’s intonation and tics — Big Willie’s own persona nestles just under the surface. But that’s somehow to the benefit of the performance and the film, truly demonstrating what made Ali a figure that seemingly had the whole world at his beck and call. His failure to win the Oscar that many had tipped him for (Denzel Washington took it for “Training Day” instead) may have driven him back to blockbuster territory for a while, but we hope Smith can recapture the fire and the nuance that he showed here at some point down the line.
“Men In Black” (1997)
There are two Will Smiths, to some degree: Will Smith the serious actor, and Big Willie the movie star, a much more common sight, even for a guy who’s been less than prolific in recent years. And that movie star has never had a better vehicle than the original 1997 “Men In Black.” He’s reprised the role of Agent J twice directly (in 2002’s dismal sequel, and in last year’s decent, if not especially funny, third installment), and at least once indirectly (“Wild Wild West,” is pretty much the same thing in cowboy garb), but never did it better than that first time at bat. In part, it’s because he gets the clearest arc here, deftly progressing from wide-eyed NYC cop to hardened alien-buster. He’s as funny as you’d expect from someone who just wrapped up a hit sitcom, and proves capable at the action too. Oh, and he looks damn good in a suit. Most crucial of all in Barry Sonnenfeld‘s inventive, feather-light sci-fi comedy is his chemistry with co-star Tommy Lee Jones. The sequels would squander their best asset by all-too-often separating their stars, but here, Smith and Jones play beautifully off each other, clashing good-naturedly but clearly having a genuine affection for each other. Smith’s almost always engaging in blockbuster fare (even in something more dour like “Hancock” or “I Am Legend“), but he’s unlikely to get a better vehicle than this. Amazingly, the part was originally earmarked for Matthew Perry; it’s difficult to imagine that Sony would currently be developing a fourth installment if Chandler Bing had been Agent J…
“Enemy Of The State” (1998)
Perhaps we’re reaching here. But we’d argue “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is fine and understated, but unremarkable, “Hancock” is a nice subversion of Smith’s hero complex, but hardly brilliant in any way and the “Bad Boys” films, while entertaining, don’t really require a lot of muscle in terms of acting. So our next choice is “Enemy Of The State,” and that’s admittedly because the late Tony Scott film is one of the best movies on Smith’s CV, though whether or not that’s down to Smith is arguable. Smith plays the role he’s really not interested in anymore: the patsy sap. In what can be regarded as an unofficial sequel to Francis Ford Coppola‘s “The Conversation,” Smith plays a lawyer who becomes a target when he accidentally receives key evidence about a group of rogue National Security Agency agents who have killed a U.S. Congressman and tried to cover up the murder. Gene Hackman co-stars as a wanted, paranoid, ex-NSA intelligence operative who reluctantly helps Smith’s character out. The story is positively Hitchcockian, an innocent, clueless Everyman inadvertently stumbles into a bad situation and winds up the wrong man in the wrong place who has to muster all his resourcefulness and resolve to extricate himself from a potentially lethal mix-up. And so the plot does a lot of the heavy lifting for the actor who has to channel a combination of “are you fucking kidding me?” disbelief, “what the hell did I do to deserve this?” anger, and “holy shit I’m about to die,” panic. But while it’s all on the page, we’d argue one of the reasons this electrifying thriller (also one of Scott’s best) works so well is that the actor convincingly sells every particular shade of confusion and fear along the way. “Enemy Of The State” was pre-superstar Will Smith when he was still trying to prove himself beyond what some may have skeptically believed was the fluke of “Six Degrees Of Separation,” and it shows. Smith goes for broke the entire movie, fully convincing you that these are all do-or-die moments and not resting lazily on his attractive grin as he has tended to do in some later outings. Here, maybe for the last time in his career to date, he comes across as a workhorse and a team-player, willing to put in the time and effort to nail each scene in service of the film, rather than having it serve him.
“The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006)
Director Gabriele Muccino‘s well-intentioned drama follows the story of a struggling salesman who takes custody of his son as he aspires to start again and begin a life-changing professional endeavor. And having just rewatched it, we can’t refrain from judging the movie itself and not just Smith’s terrific and understated performance — it is frustrating how this often soulful and poignant movie is undone by its manipulative desire to stack the odds against the protagonist and really make him suffer before he achieves his goal (Thandie Newton is pretty awful as the one-note unsympathetic wife and it’s because the script essentially just makes her into a villain). This is usually the case with hard-luck lead performances, but Christ, filmmakers and screenwriters, learn to give your characters a bit of a break sometimes. Given Will Smith’s largely pragmatic rather than inspired choices throughout his career, and especially lately, it’s hard to not be cynical as to the reason he took this film, of all the films he could have done: so that he could get his son Jaden (going under Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, for this, his screen debut) his first onscreen credit and have the two share a father/son story. Cynicism aside though, Smith, who more often plays the generic, boilerplate hero role in movies like “I, Robot” or “Wild Wild West,” lets all that go in ‘Happyness,’ and delivers a vulnerable and understated performance as a man trying to better himself for his family, but vacillating between self-doubt and confidence in his natural-born abilities. Smith proves, even if the material lets him down, that he can deliver a sincere, genuine and heartfelt performance of real honesty, and does it so convincingly it makes us wish he’d factor in more dramatic roles in future — the part even earned him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination. The actor would try and recapture this lightning in a bottle with Muccino’s “Seven Pounds” in 2008, but the manipulative heart-tugging treacle that threatened to ruin ‘Happyness,’ definitely spilleth over in the reunion effort.
We’re no doubt going to be accused of snobbery for not including either of the “Bad Boys” outings, nor his first bona-fide blockbuster with “Independence Day,” but while we like them all well-enough-to-quite-a-lot depending on who you talk to, it’s a schtick we’ve seen him do frequently, and arguably “Men in Black” covers that off, if in a more comedic vein. But also worth a mention is “I Am Legend,” a deeply flawed film in which Smith’s broken, pessimistic hero was maybe the best thing, unfortunately swamped by dumb CG creatures. His alcoholic superhero “Hancock” also subverted our expectations of a Smith hero, albeit in a sourly comic vein, while”The Legend of Bagger Vance” he’s perfectly fine in, but it’s too twee a film to have really remained with us.
Elsewhere he’s made some dodgier choices — he himself has admitted that “Wild Wild West” should have been better, though endearingly he asserts that he doesn’t regret turning down the lead in “The Matrix” to do it: he’s claimed he wouldn’t have done as a good a job, and certainly it’s hard now to imagine him tamping down his natural exuberance to play a character as seriously messianic as Neo. And as for refusing the lead in “Django Unchained,” in retrospect his assessment of the title role as “not the lead” is kind of correct, with even the Academy choosing to award Christoph Waltz a second time for his role (admittedly with a “supporting” Oscar), rather than to even nominate Jamie Foxx for his.
All that aside, though, Smith reportedly said of the Tarantino script: “I thought it was brilliant. Just not for me.” But as our quick trip back through some of his less characteristic roles has reminded us, “not for me” doesn’t necessarily mean he shouldn’t do it.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang