Actor. Rapper. Dude who bungee jumps out of helicopters. Will Smith is a multi-faceted entertainer who, after more than three decades in showbiz, really has done it all.
However, historically, his body of work as a big screen action hero has divided the general public. From garnering two Best Actor Oscar nominations (for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness) to turning down the lead role in The Matrix to make Wild Wild West instead, it’s easy to see why.
So, with a clear, unbiased conscience and Big Willie Style bumping on my sound system, it’s time to set the record straight on Will Smith’s movie career and highlight the 10 best action-packed projects he’s been involved with since the dawn of the Fresh Prince fever in the early-90s.
It’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s jump right in.
In the three years following Men in Black III, Smith’s career was full of big swings and misses, including the dreadful After Earth and Winter’s Tale. Despite those bombs, he earned himself a box-office and critical comeback of sorts with the action-thriller Focus, a twisty-turny film where he plays a veteran con man to Margot Robbie’s green-but conniving apprentice. As a stylish, Ocean’s-esque excursion into the world of charming criminals, you could do a lot worse.
9. I, Robot
A sci-fi thriller that predates the AI paranoia that has gripped the Western news media in the past few months, I, Robot drops Smith into the middle of an intriguing futuristic premise and manages, for the most part, to weave it into a suspenseful whodunit. Though it’s also saddled with a rushed, unconvincing ending, Robot is still a solid piece of blockbuster fare that’s miles above loud, pointless Smith vehicles like Bright and Bad Boys II.
I mentioned Smith’s two Best Actor nominations earlier and, since boxing is the closest thing sports movies have to out-and-out fistfights and explosions, let’s talk about his portrayal of the Champ. Ali, directed by the great Michael Mann, surrounds Smith with capable supporting players, such as Jamie Foxx and Jon Voight, and gives the rapper-actor room to get under the champ’s skin and embody his spirit. Though it’s weighed down by too much exposition and at least 45 minutes too long, Ali rises to the level of involving biopic based mostly on Smith’s mesmerizing performance in the title role. Rumble, young man, rumble.
7. I Am Legend
An underrated performance if I’ve ever seen one, I Am Legend is a perfect example of how Smith’s presence and acting ability can carry a mediocre film to respectability all on its own. Plot holes and spotty special effects plague this post-apocalyptic world and should’ve sunk this sci-fi adaptation but, in cutting together Smith’s modulated and moving work, a stunning character study emerged. Underneath its problems, I Am Legend is really about how lonely it feels to be the last man on a decimated planet, and Smith’s performance is what anchors that emotional truth.
What if your friendly neighborhood superbeing was actually a clumsy boozehound whose antics didn’t make him any friends in high places? Behold the premise of Hancock, an uneven but entertaining antidote to the MCU-fueled reverence for men and women in capes and tights. Smith’s John Hancock is a most unsympathetic character at the outset who, with the help from a much-needed image makeover from a PR wizard (Jason Bateman), the fledgling superhero may be able to win back some public trust once more. Also featuring a nice supporting performance from Charlize Theoren, Hancock takes a pleasant trip down a comic book road less travelled.
5. Bad Boys
Speaking of the Bad Boys franchise, let’s go back to the 1995 original for a moment. Funny, violent and wholly exciting, this is what happens when you pair Smith with a co-star (Martin Lawrence) who can keep up with his energy and a script that leaves room for some perfectly-pitched banter between gratuitous Michael Bay explosions and helicopter noises. This was also a turning point in Smith’s career, paving the way for his roles in the likes of Independence Day and Men in Black later that decade. Segueway!
4. Independence Day
Okay, I’ll be straight up with you: I don’t get the hate that this movie still gets in certain corners of the internet. Is this a big, loud, sort of dumb action movie? Yes, of course it is. It’s from the same guys who made Stargate and that trainwreck of a Godzilla movie, so really, would you expect any less? That said, Independence Day is a cut above those films, presenting a complex, affecting tapestry of characters and subplots, with Smith’s Captain Hiller at the center of the excitement. Oh yeah, and Bill Pullman’s speech is still the greatest thing a U.S. President has ever done on the big screen. Period.
3. Men in Black III
I remember when this trailer came out. I watched it, rolled my eyes and assumed that both Smith and this franchise were trying to squeeze every penny out of a franchise that was already past its expiration date. However, I didn’t expect what awaited me during a late-afternoon screening later that year: a fun, action-packed romp of a film that, if nothing else, put the twinkle back in the MIB universe’s eye. Smith is great here, as is Jemaine Clement as a delightfully gruesome adversary and Josh Brolin’s hilarious Tommy Lee Jones impression as a younger Agent K.
2. Enemy of the State
Many people forget that surveillance phobia was a thing in the late-90’s, long before the Y2K truthers and the worldwide panic that came after 9/11. Writer David Marconi captures that fear and what it does to people perfectly in Enemy of the State, a script that is amplified by the late Tony Scott’s crisp, fast-paced direction. Smith’s performance as a lawyer on the run from government officials is explosive, as is Gene Hackman’s portrayal of an aged security expert who knows all too well the evil they’re both trying to evade.
1. Men in Black
Finally, we arrive at what is inarguably Smith’s best movie and one of the best times I had at a movie theater in the ’90s. Men in Black was a dazzling blend of action, laughs, gross-out moments and colorful characters that had kids like me believing, at least for a split-second, that aliens could actually walk among us and not want blood and carnage out of the deal. Well, most of them anyways.
It’s a movie that had a somewhat troubled production history, with Tommy Lee Jones almost refusing to sign on because of a supposedly weak screenplay. However, watching it today, you’d never know that was the case. He and Smith have dynamite chemistry, achieving peak odd couple movie status and helping to redefine the “buddy cop” genre for a new generation. It’s a great rewatch and Smith is one of the major reasons why.