When you reach the level of stardom that Will Smith has achieved, it can almost feel like you might have more to lose than gain (except in monetary terms) by embarking on anything as risky as a new film project. And indeed, the multi-hyphenate Smith had been largely absent from our screens over the past five years, until he showed up for last year’s “Men in Black 3,” which we might suggest, in being a sequel to a still-fondly-thought-of franchise, wasn’t the flier that this week’s “After Earth” arguably is.
The Shyamalan movie (our review is here) is a different prospect -- it’s not based on a pre-existing property (so no built-in fan base), it’s essentially a two-hander between Smith and, er, Smith Jr., and it’s helmed by a director who has not just not had a hit in a long while, but who has become something of a punching bag; a punchline to a joke about early promise and talent squandered. The weekend’s numbers will start to prove the pudding of whether Smith’s appeal can overcome these handicaps, and will provide us with an interesting index of his current popularity, because Smith really is the film’s sole bankable asset. But with “After Earth” the second “original” high-concept sci-fi tentpole vehicle this summer to have been seemingly wished entirely into existence by its megastar lead (Tom Cruise’s ”Oblivion” being the other) one thing we can state with assurance is that Big Willie’s come a long way from that playground in West Philadelphia.
More than with many stars, it feels like Smith’s immense popularity is based on not just the diversification of his brand into music, movie production, child-star generation -- a whole mini-empire -- but also the perception of him as a funny, cool, down-to-earth guy; essentially his “Fresh Prince” persona. It helps that he’s immensely likable in interviews and on talk shows too (here he is reteaming with Jazzy Jeff and Carlton on Graham Norton recently) and that in the more blockbustery of his roles he can be relied on to walk the line between aspirational charmer and relatable everyman with easy grace. But because our image of him has so conflated with some of the roles he’s played, it’s easy to forget that he is also an actor -- and sometimes he’s stepped out of the wisecracking heroic mode, and been impressive for something other than breezy charm. Here are what we judge are his five best performances that may not all form the defining core of his appeal, but that show tones and tenors to the man that we hope to see more of.
"Six Degrees Of Separation" (1995)
Bravery is not a word that's been particularly associated with Will Smith's career in recent years -- his riskier potential movies, like "Django Unchained," came to naught, and he rarely ventures outside his blockbuster tentpole comfort zone unless it's for a middlebrow drama of some kind. But you couldn't really accuse him of playing safe when it came to his first major movie role, in Fred Schepisi's terrific adaptation of John Guare's acclaimed stage play. When he took the part, Smith was a well-established rap star, and three years into "The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air," so in theory had everything to lose by playing a young man who makes a brief impression on the lives of Manhattan well-to-dos Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing, pretending to be both a friend of their college-age child and the son of Sidney Poitier. In fact, Paul, as he calls himself, is a gay hustler who's wreaked havoc on multiple lives, and who causes Sutherland and Channing to reconsider their own existence. There was some controversy at the time, and rightly so, because Smith (then 25) had refused to perform a gay kissing scene, though he came to regret it (telling USA Today "I've seen the film. It shows. I've cheapened myself as an actor... I spoke to Denzel Washington and he said if you're going to take a role, do what the role calls for.") But that sour note aside, it's a bold move for the actor to have made, and remains one of his best performances; his screen presence is cemented in a lengthy monologue (six pages on paper) about "Catcher In The Rye," and he's mercurial, vulnerable, erudite and charming throughout the film. It's not a comparison that's been made often, but you can see, in this turn at least, why he could be mistaken for Poitier's son.
Some biopics are going to be better served by casting an unknown in the central role, but that was never going to work for "Ali," Michael Mann's imperfect, uneven, and somewhat neglected 2001 picture. To capture one of the most magnetic and iconic sporting figures of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali, you needed someone with Smith's star-wattage, and while it wasn't obvious casting on paper, Smith makes a damn fine case for himself here. The film (scripted by four different writers, including Mann and Eric Roth -- and it shows) covers the decade from Cassius Clay's defeat of Sonny Liston to his victory over George Foreman as Ali, taking in his conversion to Islam, his refusal of the draft and the break-up of his marriage. And as that might sound, it's sprawling and unfocused, but filled with flashes of fitful greatness, not least in an astonishing opening that marks among Mann's very finest moments. But at its center is Smith, and he's kind of extraordinary and makes the film entirely worthwhile. Filled out, bulked up, and with an entirely different physicality, Smith doesn't quite disappear into the role, although he does a good job capturing Ali's intonation and tics -- Big Willie's own persona nestles just under the surface. But that's somehow to the benefit of the performance and the film, truly demonstrating what made Ali a figure that seemingly had the whole world at his beck and call. His failure to win the Oscar that many had tipped him for (Denzel Washington took it for "Training Day" instead) may have driven him back to blockbuster territory for a while, but we hope Smith can recapture the fire and the nuance that he showed here at some point down the line.