With Smith – the former Fresh Prince of Bel Air – has carved out an impressive and diverse body of work. Critic Travis Johnson picks his best performances.
Bad Boys for Life is currently leading the box office charts, reuniting superstar Will Smith with both co-star Martin Lawrence and the franchise that catapulted him to superstardom back in 1995.
Smith had been a presence on our screens prior to doing the buddy cop thing in mayhem master Michael Bay’s debut feature, mainly on popular African-American rags-to-riches sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996). But Bad Boys marked his elevation from pop-and-TV-star to bona fide Hollywood leading man.
Over the course of the next 25 years he proved himself not only capable of anchoring a rollicking popcorner, but also of being adroit dramatic actor as well. Oscar gold may have eluded him so far, but as Smith’s work below shows, it’s surely only a matter of time.
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Smith’s NYPD cop stumbles across a hidden world of alien immigrants living on Earth and the Men in Black who police them. Teaming up with Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan veteran Agent K, he saves the universe in a brisk 89 minutes, because movies didn’t mess around back then.
Smith excels when he’s given someone to play off of, and his best on screen sparring partner isn’t Bad Boys’ Martin Lawrence. It’s MIB’s dour, hangdog Tommy Lee Jones. While the older actor plays the whole alien-infested enterprise absolutely straight, Smith pitches his performance perfectly, bringing his hip-hop personal style to the table but making sure he never goes too broad or over the top: he balances Jones’ turn rather than overpowering it.
While Men in Black‘s central conceit is robust enough to support a franchise, it’s the central pairing that makes it work. Just take a look at the Smith-and-Jones-free Men in Black: International for evidence.
Tony Scott directs Smith as a Washington lawyer targeted for surveillance, harassment and framing by the NSA after he’s given evidence of an extra-judicial killing. Forced to run for his life, he teams up with a paranoid former agent (Gene Hackman effectively reprising his role from The Conversation) and tries to clear his name. Two decades ago it seemed far-fetched. Today it wouldn’t rate a hashtag.
You know what’s harder than playing an action hero? Playing a non-action hero in an action movie. Nicolas Cage managed it in 1997’s The Rock, and Smith does it here. In Enemy of the State he’s not the guy who makes things happen; he’s the guy things happen to. Nailing that deer-in-the-headlights WTF tone, while still bringing the requisite movie star charisma, is a tricky balancing act.
Smith is once again paired with a sturdy older actor to bounce off of in the form of the unflappable Hackman. It’s a tribute to Smith’s sheer magnetism that he still comes across as the star of the movie, even when his role is basically to look confused while Hackman explains things to him.
I Am Legend (2007) – Dr. Robert Neville
After a miracle cancer cure turns pretty much everyone into ravening, feral vampires, military scientist Dr. Robert Neville (Smith) is left alone in abandoned New York City. By day he scouts for supplies and broadcasts radio messages to whatever other survivors might still be out there. By night he defends his fortified brownstone against hordes of the undead. The film was adapted from the Richard Matheson novel, which you absolutely must read.
Ask any actor and they’ll tell you that the most difficult roles are ones where you have to act alone. Reacting off of other performers brings life and energy to a scene; by yourself, you’ve got to do the all the heavy lifting solo. For the first half of I Am Legend, Smith has only a German shepherd, a few mannequins and the odd CGI monster to share the screen with, and yet his portrayal of a man desperately building mental bulwarks against crushing loneliness and paranoia is exemplary.
I Am Legend took some stick on release for its shaky CGI and its departures from the source novel, but Smith’s one man survivalist show is reason enough to give it another spin.
Focus (2015) – Nicky Spurgeon
Fledging grifter Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) is taken under the wing of Smith’s seasoned conman, who involves her in an elaborate con against Rodrigo Santoro’s venal motorsports impresario. But who is conning who?
Sometimes movie stars just want to be allowed to be movie stars. Giving them the space to do so is what makes Stephen Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 movies work, and it’s what makes this underappreciated gem work. Opposite a luminous Robbie, Smith is a modern day Cary Grant or David Niven: a smooth, debonair charmer whose sharp intelligence cuts through his dapper demeanor.
Focus is a confection of a film, but it works because it lets its leading duo really take the brakes off. They give the audience an overdose of old school glamour that modern cinema rarely has space for.
Concussion (2015) – Bennett Omalu
Smith’s real life Nigerian-born forensic pathologist begins looking into the rate of death and cerebral dysfunction among former NFL players, uncovering an epidemic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy resulting from repeated head traumas. The NFL digs in its heels, but the quietly determined corpse cutter perseveres.
Concussion was dismissed as naked Oscar bait on release and, yes, this is exactly the kind of wordy, big issue, character-centric drama that has drawn the Academy’s approval in the past. Still, within that framework Smith holds his own alongside an impressive ensemble that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, David Morse, Paul Reiser and more.
In a film filed with big performances, Smith’s Omalu intrigues because he is quiet, dignified, almost small – a man dedicated to his job who, once he discovers the root cause of the deaths plaguing the NFL’s veterans, simply must bring it to light if it means helping people. His accent’s pretty good, too.
Smith’s single father struggles to care for his young son (Jaden Smith) and complete an unpaid stockbroking internship in the face of extreme poverty and homelessness.
Smith goes dowdy but determined to play Gardner in this modern day Dickensian rags to riches tale. It’s grueling stuff and, frankly, a little on the nose, as Gardner meets setback after setback with grit, compassion, and the occasional emotional meltdown. What shines through, however, is the character’s nigh-unquenchable self-belief and sense of hope, a necessary counterpoint to the film’s otherwise unsentimental tone.
Australian director Fred Schepisi adapts John Guare’s stage play, casting Smith as a young, gay conman who inveigles himself into the lives of an Upper West Side socialite couple by pretending to be a friend of their college-age children – and the son of Sidney Poitier.
This is, make no mistake, a very different Will Smith than the one we’ve become accustomed to over the last 30-odd years. His measured, perfectly poised turn as the sharp, duplicitous grifter (who knows exactly what to say and do to disarm his hosts) hints at the career he might have had if he’d not doubled down on blockbuster fare.
The urbane, erudite Paul presents a portrait of a “safe” black man designed to charm his marks. Smith effortlessly rattles off literary allusions and cultural trivia with such grace and clarity that we too are under his spell – right up until the revelation of his true identity makes us question not just who we were seduced by, but the unexamined prejudices that let us be so seduced.
Ali (2001) – Muhammad Ali
Veteran filmmaker Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) charts a decade in the life of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali (Smith), from his 1964 heavyweight championship victory over Sonny Liston to the iconic 1974 Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman.
Although Smith had some early dramatic roles under his belt, he was definitely pegged as a light entertainer at this stage of his career and was champing at the bit for the chance to expand his range. Under Mann’s tutelage, Smith bulked up, studied up, and stepped into the ring, where he traded real blows with championship-caliber fighters to capture the realism Mann demands.
Smith’s Ali is a mercurial figure: a young man shaped by racism and the ring, still creating an identity for himself in the faces of various forces: his sport, his country, his religion – that want to do it for him. Ali bombed back in 2001, but if there’s one film that really deserves reappraisal in Smith’s back catalogue, it’s this one.