Three decades into his career, Will Smith remains one of the most successful actors of his generation and one unafraid to continue to pursue the possibility of blockbuster domination alongside smaller projects only he could make happen. Smith’s initial foray into the movie business included supporting roles in “Where the Day Takes You” (1992), “Made in America” (1993), and a co-lead role in “Six Degrees of Separation” (1993): dramas that drew some critical acclaim but yielded very limited box office.
Then the actor reconsidered his career objectives, realizing how important box office was to longevity, and researched what ingredients were necessary to turn movies into blockbusters. It worked.
Over the following decade, the vast majority of the movies he starred in met those requirements — high budget, high concept projects, typically released in the summer, with the potential to make a lot of money: the “Men in Black” and “Bad Boys” franchises, “Independence Day,” “I Am Legend,” “Enemy of the State,” and even poorly reviewed movies like “Hancock,” which was made for $150 million and grossed over $600 million worldwide.
“I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented,” the then-39-year-old actor said to “60 Minutes” in a 2007 profile. “I’ve viewed myself as slightly above average in talent. And where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethic. You know, while the other guy’s sleeping? I’m working. While the other guy’s eating? I’m working.”
And all that hard work paid off. Smith quickly became one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors and an international superstar, known for relatively safe, cinematic spectacle with broad appeal. He had seemingly “transcended” race, and for a Black actor, was in rare company.
But life is a series of peaks and valleys, so it was maybe only a matter of time before Smith would have to contend with the reality that he was a mere mortal, not a box office god. That moment would come in 2013, after the critical and commercial debacle of the M. Night Shyamalan–directed “After Earth.” Starring Smith and son Jaden Smith, the movie was savaged by critics, and remains his worst-rated title, scoring an 11-percent Rotten rating.
That same year, maybe as a result, he revealed in an interview that he was planning to make a career shift away from high-profile blockbusters, towards riskier projects. “There’s something about making movies that just really gets me excited,” he said, a year after “Django Unchained,” which he later admitted he turned down. “I love people being wrapped in a story and being able to deliver that emotional punchline at the end. It’s been an absolute necessity that the movie be a blockbuster, but I think I’m going to start moving out of that and finding more danger in my artistic choices.”
Since then, Smith hasn’t exactly been the “Fresh Prince” of anything, starring in a string of films that were dismissed by critics, including recent films “Gemini Man” and the absolutely needless “Bad Boys for Life.”
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to celebrate about Smith’s career, notably 2022 Oscar contender “King Richard,” for which he picked up the SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, making him the favorite to win the same category at the Oscars.
In recognition of his critically acclaimed performances in “King Richard,” here’s a ranking of Smith’s 14 best movies.