Photo-Illustration: Emily Denniston/Vulture and photos courtesy of the studios
This article has been updated to include Smith’s recent films.
Will Smith, who turns 50 today, is one of the most successful movie stars of the last 20 years, and his trajectory to that place was meteoric. From youthful rap to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Independence Day to global domination, Smith was on you so fast you barely had time to register that he’d taken over the world. With few missteps, he has remained likable and relatable, even when his star has taken a dip or two. He even managed to still be charming in Suicide Squad, which one would have thought impossible.
And don’t think he doesn’t have depth, either, both playing “serious” roles like in Ali and blockbusters like I Am Legend. But Will Smith, even with his missteps, remains the sort of movie star you just don’t see anymore. There will never be another one like him, so, in honor of the actor hitting the half-century mark, we went back and ranked all of his movie performances.
(And sorry: Bright didn’t get a theatrical release, so it’s not on here. It’s best for Smith if we ignore it anyway.)
The debacle that prompted Smith to take an 18-month hiatus from acting, After Earth really is as bad as you remember: an overly ponderous, drag-ass sci-fi action-drama in which Will’s son Jaden wholly lacks the charisma that made his dad a mega-star. What undoubtedly made its failure harder on Smith was that he had dreamed up the original story and thrust his son into the central role, figuring it would propel him up the Hollywood food chain. Maybe that’s why Smith looks so glum throughout the film: He seems to be realizing in real time what a bad idea After Earth was.
Yeah, it’s the complete misguided mess that you’ve heard it is, but all told, it’s more embarrassing for Edward Norton, Michael Pena, and Kate Winslet — who play the awful human beings meant to be the “good guys” of this bewildering “heartwarmer” — than it is for Smith, who is mostly put-upon and thus escapes the true awfulness. The real problem with Smith here is one that’s common to many of his “serious” performances: He turns down the star wattage that we love about Will Smith and turns mopey and morose. There are already enough mopey and morose actors: There’s no need for you to be one, Will. Though to be fair: It’s possible he realized the dog of a movie he was in and just couldn’t work up any smiles anyway.
Everything that was terrific about the first Men in Black — the witty premise, the hip tone, the oil-and-vinegar rapport between Smith and Tommy Lee Jones — evaporates in this strained, unfunny sequel. Where Smith’s Agent J was once an awesome smartass, Men in Black II presents him as just a smug dick. This is the first time Smith seemed to take a movie precisely because he needed a hit — which, in the wake of Wild Wild West, was the case.
The infamous Jellyfish movie. This is the closest Smith ever came to John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth territory, a personal project that’s a nightmare to sit through and seriously made you wonder for a second if Smith had some sort of Jesus complex. And seriously: Watch that jellyfish scene:
This really did make sense at the time. Barry Sonnenfeld of the Men in Black films, Kevin Kline as the trusty sidekick, and a sci-fi-meets-Western premise. But, wow, did it ever go wrong. (Starting with that terrible theme song. We bet Smith would like that one back.) Pandering, chaotic, disorganized Hollywood filmmaking at its worst. The one true big-budget flop of Smith’s career, and you can’t say it doesn’t earn the designation.
What’s it like when a seemingly random smattering of early ‘90s up-and-coming young “stars” all don’t take a bath for a day and pretend to be “troubled” drug addicts on the streets of Los Angeles? Well, it looks like a movie-of-the-week with everybody wearing flannel. Seriously, check out this crazy cast: Dermot Mulroney, Sean Astin, Lara Flynn Boyle, Christian Slater, David Arquette, Nancy McKeon, Alyssa Milano, Ricki Lake! Smith, in his first film, plays Manny, a legless homeless kid who mostly shows up to be friendly, move a wheelchair quickly, and get beaten up. Fortunately, Smith would be out of these roles very soon.
Smith has just a small part in this Akiva Goldman misfire, but it’s a super silly one: He plays the devil! He doesn’t do a lot of devilish things, but he does do this:
We had kinda forgotten he was in this, too. Or, maybe we just wanted to forget: Smith is part of the epic, lame battle royale that happens near the end of this just-good-enough sequel. He’s the anchor of the ESPN crew, and his cameo consists mostly of a goofy early-’80s hairdo. And what’s with his voice? Is he trying to make his character sound prissy or nerdy or what? Don’t feel too bad, Will: Everybody in this scene — Tina Fey, Kanye West, Jim Carrey — comes off badly.
A classic “Magical Negro” role that Smith was able to avoid the rest of his career, this is a low point for both Smith and director Robert Redford. The role is beneath Will Smith, and really beneath any prominent black actor; it’s impossible to imagine it being made today. Seriously, watch this again: You’ll be pretty taken aback. (It was also the last film of Jack Lemmon.)
Well, you certainly can’t blame Smith for everything that goes wrong with Suicide Squad, and at the very least, he’s a reason to keep watching when the movie is flapping all over the place and running into walls. He and Robbie are the only people who seem to have put much thought into what went onscreen, and for that, we must express our gratefulness. And then run out of the theater.
Smith didn’t have to do this sequel — he was already the biggest movie star on the planet at this point — and he probably should have stayed away. This is Michael Bay trying maybe a little too much comedy, to the point that the opening sequence takes place at a Klan rally in which Martin Lawrence gets shot in the butt. It goes downhill from there, but Smith somehow keeps it afloat, largely because he’s Will Smith and has an internal governor that won’t let him sink too low. (One suspects he cringes when he watches this now.) There are rumors that a Bad Boys III is coming. Let those stay rumors.
Yes, Will Smith was in a Kevin Smith movie. Only briefly, though. This brief, and ill-fated, attempt by Kevin Smith to become a Serious Hollywood Filmmaker fell on its face — to be fair, it would have difficult for anything to survive Bennifer — but it’s worth pointing out that Smith has a wonderful little cameo here. Playing himself, he comes across Ben Affleck’s character in a hospital waiting room and provides the film its only genuine moment, in which he and Affleck share a moment of understanding and commiseration that feels earned. It’s also funny how Smith plays himself. Unlike most movie stars, who feel the need to send up their persona, Smith is just how he sees himself, and maybe how he actually is: A laid-back guy who’s living the best life and can’t believe how lucky he is. Few movie stars have felt so comfortable in their own skin. You see that surprisingly well here.
Smith is extremely fun as a con man — the first con man he’d played since Six Degrees of Separation 20 years earlier, a movie that strikes a very different pitch — in a movie that never quite figures out whether it’s a heist comedy, a dark thriller, or something. He has obvious rapport with Margot Robbie, which would carry over to a worse movie in Suicide Squad, and, as usual, he effortlessly gets the audience on his side. The story has too many twists and turns to be taken seriously, but it’s worth it just to hang out.
Smith’s best straight-drama performance since 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness finds him playing Bennet Omalu, a soft-spoken Nigerian doctor living in Pittsburgh who helped uncover the traumatic brain injuries devastating NFL players. It’s a modest portrayal without much in the way of actorly fireworks, and the two-time Oscar nominee leans heavily on his quiet decency. When you’re among the most charismatic humans on the planet, that’s more than enough.
The concept of this movie is so inherently bizarre — Whoopi Goldberg discovers that the father of the child she conceived from a sperm donor is dumbass car salesman Ted Danson — that you look for any sort of escape. And you certainly find it in Smith, who plays the love interest of the daughter (Nia Long) with such movie-star charm that he practically leaps off the screen. He wouldn’t have to play silly comic-relief supporting roles much longer, but, man, was he ever good at it. He’s so exuberant and having such a blast that it almost makes you forget Goldberg’s and Danson’s real-life relationship. Almost.
The sort of dumb studio rom-com that goes as far as its star will take it, Hitch suggests what Smith’s career might have been like if he’d taken the Matthew McConaughey route. He plays a suave relationship adviser who counsels dorky Kevin James on how to talk to a pretty gal (Amber Valletta) — so, of course, he’s nervous in his own life trying to woo assertive gossip columnist Eva Mendes! Yeah, like we said, Hitch is dumb, but it’s dumb in a fluffy, appealing way, and Smith gets to work that 1,000-watt smile while playing the romantic lead — something he hasn’t done much at the movies.
Smith and director Michael Bay teamed up when both men were on a career upswing, and Bad Boys was the very appealing (and, yes, sorta racist and homophobic) result. This is where the Fresh Prince graduates to big-screen badass action hero, setting the stage for Independence Day, Men in Black and the title of King of the Fourth of July Blockbuster. What’s funny about watching Bad Boys now: Dude seems so young, but his smartass chemistry with Martin Lawrence still shines.
This was the first movie Smith made after 2008’s Hancock and Seven Pounds, and the four years away from multiplexes only reminded us how much we loved the guy. Men in Black 3 washes away the bad memories of the 2002 sequel, pairing Smith mostly with Josh Brolin, who’s playing Tommy Lee Jones’s Agent K in the past. The time-jumping narrative and Brolin’s spot-on Jones impression are the movie’s highlights, which allows Smith to ease back into movie-star mode, supplying Agent J with endless cool and still-stellar comic timing.
A fairly basic thriller that hasn’t aged particularly well — unlike the Isaac Asimov book it’s based on — and feels compromised, not least of which by some truly bizarre product placement. Smith can play this sort of Wry Cop in his sleep, but he’s a steadying force among all the chaos around him. He’s also a surprisingly urgent action star: He’s physical, sure, but also vulnerable and insistent. He makes it look easier than it is.
This Tony Scott action-thriller came out during Smith’s bulletproof period where he could do no wrong. (Spoiler alert: The following year’s Wild Wild West would end that streak.) He’s not the cool cat or the cocky showboat this time, though: He plays a mild-mannered lawyer mixed up in a government conspiracy, with only Gene Hackman’s mysterious operative able to save him. Enemy of the State was Smith’s dry run for the dramatic roles he would soon be pursuing, and he’s commanding and sympathetic as a regular guy fighting for his life.
Smith’s nerviest blockbuster finds him playing a superhero who’s also an asshole, and the actor seems tickled at the prospect of tweaking his own squeaky-clean image. Hancock doesn’t always balance its desire to be a dark satire of comic-book movies with its need to deliver supersized, put-asses-in-the-seats spectacle. But Smith finds the nuance and pain in an all-powerful character who can save the world but can’t get out of his own way.
One of the hardest things for A-list stars to do is portray “ordinary” people. (Stay too long in the limelight and you lose the common touch.) But Smith earned his second Best Actor nomination effortlessly playing Chris Gardner, who in the early 1980s fell into homelessness while raising his young son (Smith’s own son Jaden). There’s nothing showy in Smith’s performance, which is crucial for a character who’s been beaten down by life but still clings to a defiant optimism. Smith’s obvious affection for his boy radiates through the screen.
This adaptation of John Guare’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play had all the Appeal to the Smart Upper East Side Crowd cachet a young actor looking to make a splash would want, but what’s stunning is how much fire and passion Smith brings to the performance, at times wiping seasoned vets Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing right off the screen. Smith is a little mannered at first as a grifter who cons a cultured NYC couple into believing he’s Sidney Poitier’s son, but once his ruse is discovered, he, and the film, turn into something much more raw and searing. Even if you found Smith charming before this, his performance snapped you to attention: Wait, he can do this? In some ways, he hasn’t quite challenged himself as much since.
This sequel didn’t bring back Smith, and it left a huge crater at its center: Would we have ever made this such a big hit, would we have ever cared so much, if it hadn’t have been for Smith? The movie is fairly standard disaster-flick porn — albeit done in Roland Emmerich’s harmlessly dumb style — but Smith springs it to life every time he shows up. No wonder he became such a July 4 star: This is America how we want to see ourselves, a little John Wayne, a little Muhammad Ali. Welcome to Earth!
The movie never quite figures out its ending — and the initial ending, from the book but rejected by test audiences, might have been a better place to land — but Smith is incredibly moving as a man who has lost everyone he loved and knew but still, in spite of himself, keeps trudging forward. It’s a tricky performance, and its strength is in Smith’s unwillingness to ever go for the easy out: You can tell he’s invested in what a man like this would go through, and he appears legitimately damaged from it. Not everything in this movie works, but it might be Smith’s most underappreciated performance.
Muhammad Ali’s death may have brought newfound appreciation to this deeply moving, under-loved biopic, but the greatness of Smith’s performance was never in dispute. Ali merges the two sides of this dynamic actor — the electric entertainer and the soulful dramatist — into one perfect whole, presenting the iconic boxer as the ultimate showman who was also sensitive to (and swept up in) the political and racial turmoil swirling around him. Earning his first Oscar nomination, Smith uses his charisma like a weapon, tapping into Ali’s sting-like-a-bee magnetism.
Sure, the man is a superb dramatic performer. But be honest: This is the movie — and character — you first think of when someone mentions Will Smith. Men in Black is a miracle of a blockbuster — a snazzy, funny, eye-popping sci-fi action movie — and Smith treats the whole enterprise like one big lark. No movie star makes blasé irreverence feel hipper, just as no other movie star makes event movies feel like the coolest thing in the world. You know what? He did make this look good.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site griersonleitch.com.