Gemini Man opens October 11. The name Will Smith has become synonymous with sci-fi action films. Smith has had a long and varied career, even if his genre roles are my favorite. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. Somewhere I have a Soundtracks cassette of eight-year-old me rapping (or attempting to) “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” (Once upon a time, kids, we paid to do karaoke and they gave us recordings of it.) On the eve of Will Smith’s latest movie, let’s take a look at his most essential performances.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Will Smith’s first significant acting job was starring in this long-running sitcom. He played a fish out of water who left a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia to live with his rich relatives in California after getting in a fight. But you probably already knew that from the famous, catchy theme song. I had loved Will aka The Fresh Prince for his novelty rap songs like “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.” This show was what made him a household name though.
Six Degrees of Separation
This was one of Will Smith’s first movie roles and it proved he could play serious parts. Smith’s character interrupts a rich couple’s dinner party claiming to be a friend of their Ivy League children. He charms his way into their home but there may be more to him than there appears. This movie, adapted from John Guare’s play, is the basis of the Kevin Bacon game aka Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. (I can link Will to Kevin in 2 degrees. Will Smith stars with Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black. Tommy Lee Jones stars with Brad Pitt in Ad Astra. Brad Pitt is in Sleepers with Kevin Bacon.)
Will Smith joined fellow sitcom star Martin Lawrence for this action film where they play detectives. The duo proved to be so popular that not only did they make a second movie, a third one is slated to come out next year and a fourth one is in pre-production.
This blockbuster set a precedent for a while. It just wasn’t summer without a Will Smith movie, most of them coming out on Fourth of July weekend. Smith plays a military pilot who helps defend Earth against an alien attack. The special effects may seem dated today, but at the time the White House getting blown up by a UFO was the coolest thing any of us had ever seen. The movie became the highest-grossing film of 1996. The following summer would see Smith working with aliens again.
Men in Black
Based on a comic book, this sci-fi comedy blockbuster paired Will Smith with Tommy Lee Jones. They made for a winning team. They play secret agents who are part of an organization that supervises alien lifeforms on Earth and hides their existence from humans. The movie spawned three sequels and a cartoon series.
Smith plays boxer Muhammad Ali in this biopic. His performance earned him his first Oscar nomination. (I’m not going to discuss his second Oscar nomination for The Pursuit of Happyness. If you want to see Smith in an inspirational role, watch The Legend of Bagger Vance instead. It’s much less schmaltzy.) Sadly, this is one of those films where the movie isn’t as good as the performance. But it’s still worth seeing. Will Smith becomes Muhammad Ali.
I Am Legend
I still feel like Smith was within a hair’s breadth of getting an Oscar nomination for this role. You can feel his loneliness and isolation as the last man on earth after a zombie apocalypse. The scene where he begs a mannequin to talk to him is SO GOOD! This is easily one of my top films of 2007. It’s a change from the more humorous sci-fi roles of ID4 and MIB. This one’s more serious. And he still rocks it. It’s amazing how they were able to film/create an abandoned New York City, especially Times Square.
I love movies about con men. And this one has Margot Robbie to boot. Usually, Smith plays the hero. It’s rare to see him play an antihero (like in Hancock). This is a fun movie with some twists.
Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu in this important film about how football can lead to brain damage. He was nominated for a Golden Globe but snubbed by Oscar for his performance about a doctor who takes risks to do the right thing. This underrated performance is one of his best roles.
There aren’t words for how bummed I am that Smith won’t be reprising his role as Deadshot for the new Suicide Squad movie. He made a great antihero, a villain you cared about. He was a badass but he was also a loving father and made both halves of that believable. He also had great rapport with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. My only consolation is that he’ll probably play someone equally badass in the Marvel Cinematic Universe eventually.
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