"Men In Black" (1997)
There are two Will Smiths, to some degree: Will Smith the serious actor, and Big Willie the movie star, a much more common sight, even for a guy who's been less than prolific in recent years. And that movie star has never had a better vehicle than the original 1997 "Men In Black." He's reprised the role of Agent J twice directly (in 2002's dismal sequel, and in last year's decent, if not especially funny, third installment), and at least once indirectly ("Wild Wild West," is pretty much the same thing in cowboy garb), but never did it better than that first time at bat. In part, it's because he gets the clearest arc here, deftly progressing from wide-eyed NYC cop to hardened alien-buster. He's as funny as you'd expect from someone who just wrapped up a hit sitcom, and proves capable at the action too. Oh, and he looks damn good in a suit. Most crucial of all in Barry Sonnenfeld's inventive, feather-light sci-fi comedy is his chemistry with co-star Tommy Lee Jones. The sequels would squander their best asset by all-too-often separating their stars, but here, Smith and Jones play beautifully off each other, clashing good-naturedly but clearly having a genuine affection for each other. Smith's almost always engaging in blockbuster fare (even in something more dour like "Hancock" or "I Am Legend"), but he's unlikely to get a better vehicle than this. Amazingly, the part was originally earmarked for Matthew Perry; it's difficult to imagine that Sony would currently be developing a fourth installment if Chandler Bing had been Agent J...
“Enemy Of The State” (1998)
Perhaps we’re reaching here. But we’d argue “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is fine and understated, but unremarkable, “Hancock” is a nice subversion of Smith’s hero complex, but hardly brilliant in any way and the “Bad Boys” films, while entertaining, don’t really require a lot of muscle in terms of acting. So our next choice is “Enemy Of The State,” and that’s admittedly because the late Tony Scott film is one of the best movies on Smith’s CV, though whether or not that's down to Smith is arguable. Smith plays the role he's really not interested in anymore: the patsy sap. In what can be regarded as an unofficial sequel to Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," Smith plays a lawyer who becomes a target when he accidentally receives key evidence about a group of rogue National Security Agency agents who have killed a U.S. Congressman and tried to cover up the murder. Gene Hackman co-stars as a wanted, paranoid, ex-NSA intelligence operative who reluctantly helps Smith’s character out. The story is positively Hitchcockian, an innocent, clueless Everyman inadvertently stumbles into a bad situation and winds up the wrong man in the wrong place who has to muster all his resourcefulness and resolve to extricate himself from a potentially lethal mix-up. And so the plot does a lot of the heavy lifting for the actor who has to channel a combination of “are you fucking kidding me?” disbelief, “what the hell did I do to deserve this?” anger, and “holy shit I'm about to die,” panic. But while it's all on the page, we'd argue one of the reasons this electrifying thriller (also one of Scott's best) works so well is that the actor convincingly sells every particular shade of confusion and fear along the way. "Enemy Of The State" was pre-superstar Will Smith when he was still trying to prove himself beyond what some may have skeptically believed was the fluke of "Six Degrees Of Separation," and it shows. Smith goes for broke the entire movie, fully convincing you that these are all do-or-die moments and not resting lazily on his attractive grin as he has tended to do in some later outings. Here, maybe for the last time in his career to date, he comes across as a workhorse and a team-player, willing to put in the time and effort to nail each scene in service of the film, rather than having it serve him.
“The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006)
Director Gabriele Muccino's well-intentioned drama follows the story of a struggling salesman who takes custody of his son as he aspires to start again and begin a life-changing professional endeavor. And having just rewatched it, we can't refrain from judging the movie itself and not just Smith’s terrific and understated performance -- it is frustrating how this often soulful and poignant movie is undone by its manipulative desire to stack the odds against the protagonist and really make him suffer before he achieves his goal (Thandie Newton is pretty awful as the one-note unsympathetic wife and it's because the script essentially just makes her into a villain). This is usually the case with hard-luck lead performances, but Christ, filmmakers and screenwriters, learn to give your characters a bit of a break sometimes. Given Will Smith’s largely pragmatic rather than inspired choices throughout his career, and especially lately, it’s hard to not be cynical as to the reason he took this film, of all the films he could have done: so that he could get his son Jaden (going under Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, for this, his screen debut) his first onscreen credit and have the two share a father/son story. Cynicism aside though, Smith, who more often plays the generic, boilerplate hero role in movies like “I, Robot” or “Wild Wild West,” lets all that go in ‘Happyness,’ and delivers a vulnerable and understated performance as a man trying to better himself for his family, but vacillating between self-doubt and confidence in his natural-born abilities. Smith proves, even if the material lets him down, that he can deliver a sincere, genuine and heartfelt performance of real honesty, and does it so convincingly it makes us wish he'd factor in more dramatic roles in future -- the part even earned him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination. The actor would try and recapture this lightning in a bottle with Muccino’s “Seven Pounds” in 2008, but the manipulative heart-tugging treacle that threatened to ruin ‘Happyness,’ definitely spilleth over in the reunion effort.
We're no doubt going to be accused of snobbery for not including either of the "Bad Boys" outings, nor his first bona-fide blockbuster with "Independence Day," but while we like them all well-enough-to-quite-a-lot depending on who you talk to, it's a schtick we've seen him do frequently, and arguably "Men in Black" covers that off, if in a more comedic vein. But also worth a mention is "I Am Legend," a deeply flawed film in which Smith's broken, pessimistic hero was maybe the best thing, unfortunately swamped by dumb CG creatures. His alcoholic superhero "Hancock" also subverted our expectations of a Smith hero, albeit in a sourly comic vein, while"The Legend of Bagger Vance" he's perfectly fine in, but it's too twee a film to have really remained with us.
Elsewhere he's made some dodgier choices -- he himself has admitted that "Wild Wild West" should have been better, though endearingly he asserts that he doesn't regret turning down the lead in "The Matrix" to do it: he's claimed he wouldn't have done as a good a job, and certainly it's hard now to imagine him tamping down his natural exuberance to play a character as seriously messianic as Neo. And as for refusing the lead in "Django Unchained," in retrospect his assessment of the title role as "not the lead" is kind of correct, with even the Academy choosing to award Christoph Waltz a second time for his role (admittedly with a "supporting" Oscar), rather than to even nominate Jamie Foxx for his.
All that aside, though, Smith reportedly said of the Tarantino script: “I thought it was brilliant. Just not for me.” But as our quick trip back through some of his less characteristic roles has reminded us, "not for me" doesn't necessarily mean he shouldn't do it.
-- Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang