It's been four years since Will Smith starred in a film, which means we've gone an entire Presidential administration without the presence of the world's biggest movie star. Smith has been hugely famous for 20 years now, and ever since establishing himself as a movie star in 1995's Bad Boys, he's taken nothing but leading roles, establishing a string of star performance more than earned his status as the biggest modern box office draw.
No one can deny Smith is a movie star. But is he a great actor? He's starred in a lot of movies that would have crashed and burned without his charisma, but how do you pick which one of them makes a great performance, and which was his best? We debated this amongst ourselves and each of us found a performance we wanted to defend as his best. Check out our picks below, vote in the poll, and let us know what you think is Will Smith's best performance-- or if you're waiting to see that Men In Black III turns out to be his best yet.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air by Kelly West
Before Will Smith went on to fight crime and aliens, he played "Will Smith" in the TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Set up as a sort of fish-out-of-water story, the NBC comedy took a kid from West Philadelphia (born and raised) and put him in a wealthy household in Bel-Air where he was set to live out the rest of his adolescence. The fictional version of Will Smith was funny, confident and very cool. Smith demonstrated these attributes with humor and a natural ease, and they've served him well in later roles. But what worked so well for Fresh Prince wasn't just Smith's sense of humor and cool-factor, but also the contrast of his character to the people around him. Set among his peers, Smith might have been just another tall, funny guy. But set among a family of rich people, including a very serious and often disapproving uncle, a dorky cousin with very little cool to call his own, and another cousin whose snobbery and vanity was always good for a laugh, Will was almost the normal guy of the group, with a bit more grounded, relaxed perspective on life. Smith's performance not only proved vital to the success of the series, but also served to bring out some of the best and funniest attributes of the other characters by contrast.
Bad Boys by Sean O'Connell
Will Smith walks the razor-thin line between “confident” and “arrogant.” That’s what he does. Mostly, it’s for action/sci-fi roles, carrying big-screen blockbusters like Independence Day, Men In Black or I, Robot. Every once in a while, he’ll apply the skill to a rom-com like Hitch, but he remains the brightest light in any room. For the majority of Smith’s movies, he leans on 90% personality, and 10% performance … and the A-list Oscar nominee has carved out an extremely lucrative living with this unique balancing act.
But it was never better employed than when Smith teamed with Martin Lawrence and Michael Bay for the brash, ballsy Bad Boys back in 1995. Cocky Miami detective Mike Lowery was Smith’s natural ego dialed to about an “8,” a lethal ladies man quick with a handgun and a comeback line. Smith’s larger-than-life persona gelled perfectly with Lawrence’s frazzled, frustrated Marcus Burnett, and the package was contained to a relatively precise 119 minutes (Bay’s shortest film to date). Bad Boys established the blueprint of a Will Smith blockbuster: Equal parts stand-offish humor and eye-popping special effects. And the bloated, gratuitous, unchecked ego of Bad Boys II only proved how streamlined and effective the original actually was. Maybe it’s not his “best” performance, but it certainly is the quintessential Will Smith performance.
Independence Day by Kristy Puchko
Will Smith is more a movie star than an actor. His A-list status and box office prowess undoubtedly come from his winsome screen presence, not his acting technique. He's a true showman, and his cocky charisma has drawn us into a bunch of wild adventures. But his trademark blend of bravado and sitcom-spawned mugging has never been so on point as it was as Captain Steven Hiller in Independence Day. Here he's a modern everyman and plucky pilot whose big plan for the fast-approaching July 4th holiday is to propose to his ladylove, a single-mom/stripper with a heart of gold. Of course, that's all put on hold when massive alien ships crowd the skylines of major cities across the world. Turning his bravado into bravery, he faces down this extraterrestrial threat with a solid right hook. (Welcome to Earth, indeed!)
A more restrained or layered performance would have been out of place in the midst of Roland Emmerich's over-the-top love letter to American heroism, and that's why hurricane-punching Smith is perfect for the part. It harnesses his unrelenting energy and amped up acting style into the driving force that pulls audiences through this crowded ensemble piece that's peppered with some deeply sad sequences. He's our hope and our hero; but above all else, he's the man.
Men in Black by Eric Eisenberg
With actors like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger you know exactly what you’re going to get out of an action film, with big muscles, big guns, and the occasional crafty one-liner. And while Will Smith has played those kinds of roles before, what makes the first Men in Black movie stand out is that it serves to challenge him as a comedian first and an action star second.
Strong, smart and cool as Agent J may be, what makes Smith’s performance in Men in Black so great aren’t the scenes where he is handling a gun and blasting aliens, but when he is learning the ropes as a new recruit and performing against the overly-gruff Agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Smith is amazing as the fish out of water as he is exposed to a world he had no idea was surrounding him his entire life and all of it is gold. He shows himself as an agile physical comedian – trying to fill out his test form in an oval chair or trying to help an alien give birth while being tossed around in the process – but also has terrific verbal chemistry with both Jones and Linda Fiorentino, arguing about the proper application of the neutralizer with the first and failing to flirt with the latter. No other film in Smith’s career has allowed him to play to his strengths so perfectly.
Ali by Katey Rich
Will Smith always makes it look easy. The man born with enough charisma and innate skill to star in a TV show as himself at the age of 22, he seemed to coast his way to movie stardom, with the superhuman ability to turn absolute disasters into blockbusters (see: Wild Wild West) and turn his children into superstars (see: The Karate Kid, "Whip My Hair") simply by pointing them to a spotlight. But 11 years ago Will Smith let us see him work, pouring himself into the challenge of playing boxing's self-appointed greatest hero, Muhammad Ali. He doesn't shrink into the role the way you might expect in a biopic, but that becomes part of the performance's brilliance-- the brash, confident public figure Will Smith is stepping in the shoes of the brash, confident public figure Muhammad Ali, and revealing new layers of each men simultaneously. Smith has always had a way of seeming like he's playing himself onscreen, but with Ali's haircut and verbal tics and biographical details, he's changed just enough so that we don't just see a new side of The Greatest, but of Smith himself too.
The Pursuit of Happyness by Mack Rawden
Will Smith is remarkably good at playing assholes. He’s great at being the loudest guy in the room and out alpha male-ing everyone around him. His voice naturally conveys a self-assured swagger, which is actually why he’s uniquely suited for a rags-to-riches story. Chris Gardner might not be his usual asshole, but deep down, he’s convinced with hard work, determination and the right opportunity, he will succeed. The Pursuit Of Happyness is about making that opportunity. It’s about working tirelessly to put yourself into a position in which you’re given the chance to stand on your own two feet.
Throughout the film, Smith pushes himself dramatically as his world threatens to cave in, but that inherent Big Willy Swagger is never lost. As an audience, we root for Chris Gardner precisely because he’s not a charity case. Another actor might have conveyed too much sadness or too much grief, but through Smith’s eyes, we never lose hope, not hope that he’ll win the lottery or find a million dollars on the ground but hope that he’ll earn his fortune one footstep at a time. He may have made more money making wisecracks about aliens, but I prefer to watch him out-alpha male stockbrokers.
I Am Legend by Jesse Carp
Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend is certainly not Will Smith’s best film, but the Fresh Prince’s performance as Marine virologist Robert Neville is absolutely captivating. The third cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic novel is two-thirds of a fantastic film and even when the butchered ending unfolds, Smith never stops being compelling as the sole (maybe?) human survivor of the viral outbreak. And let’s not forget that the excellent first acts of I Am Legend rely almost exclusively on Smith to carry the film Cast Away-style with his only companion being a German Shepherd named Sam.
Okay, so a dog may offer a bit more to play off than a volleyball, but there is still no denying the kind of performance and presence needed to sustain the audience’s attention as the only human on screen for the majority of a movie. And these early scenes of Smith alone with Sam are also the film’s strongest and showcase all the reasons why he’s a huge star; the actor’s undeniable charisma chatting up his canine and hitting golf balls down empty NYC streets, his action chops hunting game and/or the creatures, and also his dramatic side, cowering in the bathtub as the world screams outside or losing his only companion. His Robert Neville is a broken man trying to hold on to the last remnants of his sanity and humanity, I wish we got to see him stick the landing and say (and mean) the words “I am Legend.”