He started out in music, got his big break acting on a sitcom, and has earned Oscar nominations for his dramatic work, but Will Smith’s screen career has a hefty concentration of big-budget sci-fi and fantasy films. He’s almost always fun to watch, but his movies are sometimes...not. With that Aladdin trailer fresh on our minds, we decided to rank Smith’s genre movies.
In this Robert Redford-directed tale set in Depression-era Georgia, a drawling Matt Damon plays a once-talented golfer struggling to overcome the trauma of World War I. A chance at a comeback presents itself when he’s invited to participate in a local tournament hosted by his ex (Charlize Theron), but his chances look grim until he meets a Very Special Caddie by the name of Bagger Vance (Smith).
While everyone involved with The Legend of Bagger Vance may have genuinely believed they were presenting an uplifting sports fable—including Smith, who gives an earnest performance—the movie has since gone down as one of the most cringe-worthy flaunters of the “Magical Negro” stereotype, a highly problematic and unfortunately not-uncommon character trope; as it happens, The Green Mile came out one year before Bagger Vance. This classic Key & Peele sketch kind of says it all, really.
Though M. Night Shyamalan films are usually prominently billed as such, 2013's After Earth—a big-budget sci-fi extravaganza set on an environmentally haywire Earth 1,000 years after humans were forced to flee—downplayed the director’s involvement. While you might think that’s because his previous film was the much-loathed The Last Airbender, it’s also due to the fact that After Earth is A Will Smith Vanity Project more than anything else. The actor came up with the original idea (which was then scripted by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta) about a stoic military hero (Smith) who crash-lands on post-apocalyptic Earth with his estranged teenaged son (played by Smith’s actual son, Jaden, whose uneven performance is an unfortunate distraction).
There are tons of plot holes for what’s actually a pretty simple story of family bonding, as well as some unintentionally goofy CG animals, and Smith—whose character is injured early on—spends most of the movie sitting in a busted spaceship barking at a screen, doing all of After Earth’s emotional heavy lifting. All that Smith mojo still wasn’t enough, and the movie bombed; in 2015, he called it “the most painful failure of my career.”
In this heavy-handed wannabe tearjerker, Smith plays a father so consumed with grief over his daughter’s death that his ad-agency colleagues come up with a plan to convince everyone he’s crazy so that they can save the business he’s sad-sacking into the ground. They hire a trio of actors to play the abstract concepts of Love, Time, and Death—since Smith’s character has been sending letters to said abstract concepts—film his interactions with them, and then digitally erase the actors so it looks like he’s lost his marbles.
With this elaborate fantasy hoax guiding the plot, why is Collateral Beauty a genre movie, you may ask? Because in the end, you find out those “actors” are actually the things they’re representing, and that you’ve just watched a movie that cast Helen Mirren as Death that still managed to disappoint on every level. In fact, the quality of the cast here just adds insult to injury; in addition to Smith and Mirren, this sentimental garbage also lassoed Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Ann Dowd, and Naomie Harris.
This 2017 Netflix film re-teamed Smith with his Suicide Squad director, David Ayer, and was as eagerly streamed by subscribers as it was eyed with disdain by critics. (The opinion that matters most to Netflix was made obvious when it announced a sequel, albeit without the participation of original scripter Max Landis.)
Anyway, Bright is a crime drama that imagines a world much like ours except populated not just by humans, but also orcs, elves, and other Tolkien-esque creatures (most of whom are unfortunately slotted into various racial stereotypes). Smith plays an LAPD veteran who’s none too pleased to have the force’s first orc member as his partner; they soon get pulled into a convoluted case involving warring gangs and a phenomenally powerful magic wand, and also Smith’s character has secret powers that surprise no one (in the audience, anyway) when they’re eventually revealed. With an overstuffed plot and heavy-handed themes, Bright is also supposed to be funny on occasion—but like everything else in this movie, its attempts at humor flail and fail.
It’s almost easy to forget there was a Men in Black 3. But such a film exists, and it’s unfortunately pretty disappointing, cramming a time travel plot into a movie that’s already required to contain the standard Men in Black mash-up of buddy-cop movie and alien adventure. Tasked with saving the world yet again, Agent J (Smith, going through some familiar motions) must travel back in time to prevent the murder of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in 2012; Josh Brolin in 1969) by an escaped-convict alien (Jemaine Clement) with a bone to pick and invasion on his brain. We get to see MIB headquarters in 1969, and meet Andy Warhol (Bill Hader), and so on.
So why doesn’t it work? All of the answers are contained in Charlie Jane Anders’ incredible io9 review of Men in Black 3, which you should read in its entirety, but I will entice you by quoting one of its passages here:
It is a buddy comedy which makes a mockery of friendship. It is a time travel movie in which we learn nothing about the past. It is an alien movie in which the aliens are boring. And so on. This is genre deprived of all the things that make genre fun, escapism without escape.
Smith’s jaunty theme song was a pop hit, but the rest of 1999's Wild Wild West was hailed as a steampunk turkey by unimpressed critics and audiences. What’s still frustrating now, as it was 20 years ago when the movie came out, is that this big, silly Western had all the potential to be loads of fun—just two years prior, Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld had struck action-comedy gold with the first Men in Black. Instead, Wild Wild West feels like a constant battle between Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, and the movie’s special effects to see who can chew the most scenery. (With his comically thick Southern twang, outrageous facial hair, and steam-powered wheelchair, mad scientist Branagh wins, in my estimation, though his hulking, clanking, battle-arachnid super weapon comes awfully close.)
Meanwhile, Smith—as smooth-talking, fast-drawing U.S. Army Captain Jim West—is there to react to everything, crack bad jokes, and balance out the fact that the movie’s villain is a staunch Confederate still trying to take over the country several years after the Civil War. As a side note, Smith famously chose to make Wild Wild West instead of starring in The Matrix—one of those Hollywood “what if” casting swaps that’s still so talked-about that the actor addressed it directly in a good-natured YouTube video he posted earlier this month.
Speaking of Smith and his movie choices, he also famously picked playing Deadshot in Suicide Squad over reprising the role of Capt. Steven Hiller in Independence Day: Resurgence. His reasoning, according to a late 2016 interview he did on Facebook Live, was nostalgia fatigue; he wanted to “go forward versus clinging and clawing backwards. I do want to aggressively go forward and do new things and create and hopefully be able to stumble upon a new heyday.” That’s a respectable decision—especially since Independence Day: Resurgence ended up being a giant dud—but Suicide Squad also didn’t do much to ignite that new heyday.
Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn ended up being the movie’s breakout star, so much so that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Smith’s Deadshot is actually positioned as the main character. To his credit, in a film that’s basically a total mess from start to finish, Smith is one of the more solid pieces of its chaotic puzzle—but it still feels kind of wild that he was even part of its sprawling ensemble to begin with.
Back in 2008—the year Iron Man was released—you could still make a big-budget superhero movie laden with A-list stars that wasn’t tied to Marvel, DC, or M. Night Shyamalan, for better or worse. In Peter Berg’s Hancock, Smith plays the title character, a sloppy, down-and-out grump with superpowers who half-asses his longstanding gig protecting the citizens of Los Angeles, to the point where everyone blatantly hates on him. Eventually, he links up with a PR guy in need of a career boost (Jason Bateman) and goes about rehabbing his image, a situation that gets ever-more complicated when it’s revealed he and the PR guy’s wife (Charlize Theron) have some super things in common.
Hancock is another one of those clever-concept movies that obviously could have been so much better but the script has problems galore—including with big stuff, like Hancock’s only-vaguely-explored origins and purpose, and little stuff that quickly becomes annoying, like the recurring theme of random people on the street fucking with a guy who can (and will, with limited provocation) literally toss a human into Earth’s lower atmosphere. Why? Why?
If you happen to think of Winter’s Tale—Akiva Goldsman’s overstuffed 2014 adaptation of Mark Helprin’s “unfilmable” romantic fantasy novel—you probably visualize a floppy-haired Colin Farrell riding a flying horse and romancing a glamorously ill Jessica Brown Findlay, or maybe Russell Crowe as a perma-scowling supernatural New York City gang boss. You’re probably not, like, “Oh yeah, there’s also that startling Will Smith cameo as the demonic judge who lives in the sewers.”
According to Goldsman, Smith’s character was invented for the movie and he’s not really supposed to be the actual Lucifer, despite the fact that Crowe’s character specifically calls him that in their blistering encounter. It’s a weird scene in a movie full of weird scenes, but it stands out especially since you hardly ever see Smith play bad guys (note: not to be confused with Bad Boys), much less evil characters. His turn here is a bit mystifying—but that’s also why it’s kind of great, and why Winter’s Tale is oddly high on this list.
This 2002 sequel pretty much exactly replicates the formula that made the first film such a monster success, but—as dated as it is, with Lara Flynn Boyle and Johnny Knoxville, who play the film’s blundering villains, long since faded from the pop culture zeitgeist—Men in Black II does have its own charms. More Frank the Pug! More of those hard-partying worm guys! Clues hidden in a “mysteries of the unknown” TV show! The tiny society that lives in a storage locker, illuminated by the glow of a digital watch! That one scene where the U.S. Postal Service is revealed to be almost entirely staffed by aliens in disguise!
With an alien war about to break loose, as is tradition, Smith’s Agent J has to track down Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K, who retired at the end of the first film, and restore his memories, which hold the key to saving the planet. Rosario Dawson also turns up as a sweet pizza-parlor employee who catches J’s eye, even though it’s soon revealed that she’s more tied into intergalactic politics—specifically a much-coveted item called “the Light of Zartha”—than she ever realized. There’s obviously not a lot of substance here, but Smith is in his comedy element, which goes a long way toward making Men in Black II stupidly fun from start to finish.
In this 2004 sci-fi thriller, Smith plays a detective in near-future Chicago who’s disdainful of the city’s population of humanoid robots, despite having some bionic body parts of his own thanks to a devastating car accident. His character’s prejudice comes into play when he’s tasked with investigating what appears to be the first robot-on-human murder, though the case is later revealed to be part of a larger conspiracy involving a dangerously advanced AI.
A cop racing against time, with a partner (voiced by Alan Tudyk, several years before K-2SO) he doesn’t entirely trust, and all manner of special effects to contend with—these are all firmly in Smith’s wheelhouse, and while I, Robot is only very loosely inspired by the Isaac Asimov stories that supply its title, it does put forth some interesting ideas about the evolution of technology, and is directed with trademark visual flair by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City).
Richard Matheson’s oft-adapted novel had its most recent return in 2007, with Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games) helming and Smith playing a U.S. Army virologist who may or may not be the last man on Earth after a devastating virus wiped out most of the population. But he ain’t alone—some of the infected have mutated into aggressive, vampire-cannibal-mutant things that prowl the deserted streets of New York City after dark. We already know that Smith is capable of holding the screen by himself for long stretches of time; I Am Legend adds some layers by giving him a family to grieve for, along with the single-minded focus to never give up either his research into a cure or his hope that others may have managed to survive like he did.
I Am Legend runs into some trouble with its unrealistically uplifting ending, but that’s not what sticks with you. The scene I always remember most from this movie is when Smith’s character has to kill his beloved dog—his only companion and link to the time before reality became grim and desolate—after it starts to turn into a freshly infected monster. It’s devastating and Smith absolutely makes you feel it right along with him.
We’ve already discussed both its sequels, and besides that, who isn’t already extremely familiar with this 1997 action comedy? Smith plays an NYPD officer who’s recruited into a mysterious government agency by K (Tommy Lee Jones), and soon finds himself privy to the hidden world of aliens—good, bad, and extremely evil—who secretly live among us.
Loosely based on a comic book series and scripted by Ed Solomon (whose other credits include the Bill and Ted movies), Men in Black has fun with its inspired twist on an old conspiracy theory and playing off the then-current popularity of The X-Files, while also taking full advantage of the prickly chemistry between Smith (as a fish-out-of-water who refuses to act like it) and Jones (as a no-nonsense career veteran who still delights in having the upper hand), and creating a wildly creative hidden world—Rick Baker’s aliens! The wacky weapons! That neuralizer!—that almost seems plausible.
The daring fighter pilot who dreamed of being an astronaut and ended up saving the world, marrying his hot girlfriend, and delivering a majority of Independence Day’s most quotable lines launched Smith into movie superstardom in 1996. It was a bummer when he opted not to return for the sequel (RIP, Capt. Hiller)...until we saw the sequel, and then we understood why he didn’t.
Some of Independence Day’s humor is a little dated (anything Harry Connick, Jr. says or does, for instance), but Smith’s charisma is undeniable—you’re rooting for this brave and hilarious guy to kick E.T.’s ass, in a movie that’s still one of the most enjoyable and imitated alien-invasion flicks of the CGI era.
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