Over the four day holiday weekend, Will Smith revitalized the moribund “Men in Black” franchise with a solid $70 million opening, proving yet again why he’s considered one of Hollywood’s most dependable movie stars. Or maybe he’s, as Tim Grierson described him on IFC.com last week, “The Last Movie Star.” In an age dominated by sequels, spinoffs, adaptations, and above all else, the almighty brand, Smith stands alone as one of the few men or women on the planet with enough appeal to open a movie regardless of its subject or source. In “I Am Legend” Smith played the last man on Earth (or earf, depending on your pronunciation). In Hollywood, according to Grierson, Smith is essentially the last bankable man on Earth. Even in these gloomy, post-apocalyptic times at the box office (despite “Men in Black 3” and another strong week from “The Avengers,” the box office was down 31% overall from last year’s Memorial Day take), you can still count on Will Smith to deliver.
The most interesting part of Grierson’s piece is when he compares Smith to another giant of the entertainment industry, Michael Jordan, calling him — with a flagrant disregard for the cinematic delights of “Space Jam” — the Jordan of movies:
“I’d argue that from 1996 to 2008, no star of his magnitude was as dependably exciting an onscreen presence… Smith’s run was remarkable, not unlike watching Michael Jordan in his prime winning championship after championship… Smith will be 44 in the fall, and he’s no longer the young buck anymore. If his 12-year run was Jordanesque, then my fear is that his return will be akin to Jordan’s after he canceled his retirement and took another stab at basketball. It’ll still be good to have him around, but that ineffable magic will be gone. I hope I’m wrong. I’m sure Smith does, too.”
I’d never made this connection before, but it’s spot-on. Both men conquered their fields then moved on to others (Smith from music to television to movies; Jordan from basketball to movies and baseball), both were amongst the most recognizable faces on the planet, both were brilliant, calculating competitors, and both produced unprecedented runs of sustained excellence. But it makes me want to carry it further. If Will Smith is Michael Jordan, who’s the movies’ Wilt Chamberlain? Or Larry Bird? Or LeBron James? The only one I know for sure is Patrick Ewing: that would be The Rock, who shares Ewing’s work ethic, his inability to break through to the top tier of megastardom, and his borderline disturbing sweatiness.
Read more of “Will Smith, the Last Movie Star.”