In an era where intellectual property is the most predictive of box office success, it can be easy to forget that movie stars used to be the main draw behind major movies. That was perhaps never more true than when Will Smith ruled at the box office in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the peak of his powers, Smith could regularly command huge amounts of box office numbers.
In his long career, Smith has proven that he knows what it takes to be a movie star. He’s almost always willing to be himself on screen, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of delivering powerhouse performances. Will Smith’s best movies know how to use his skills as a movie star, even as they push him outside of his comfort zone. Here are the 10 best performances from his decades in Hollywood.
If you want proof that Will Smith has still got the charm required to lead a major movie, look no further than Focus. The film stars Smith as a con man who decides to take a fledgling hustler under his wing. When the two get too close, Smith’s character decides to call it off, but when she unexpectedly shows up on a job years later, their entire dynamic threatens to upset the delicate con that he has laid out. Smith is great in the lead role, and his chemistry with co-star Margot Robbie is through the roof.
9. Enemy of the State
Gene Hackman passes the torch in Enemy of the State, a paranoid thriller that, in spite of the dated technology, feels more resonant than ever. Enemy of the State was Will Smith’s first attempt at playing a regular guy, and the results spoke for themselves. Starring as a labor lawyer accused of murder after he gets his hand on a highly incriminating tape, Smith is forced to prove his own innocence and ensure that those who committed actual crimes see the jail time they deserve.
8. Bad Boys
Michael Bay used to make movies without any Transformers in them, and Bad Boys was the best of those movies. Starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as a pair of hot-headed Miami cops who suspect that their department is involved in a drug theft, the movie works in part because it’s willing to combine the typical beats of an action movie with plenty of comedy. There’s even a major plot point where Smith and Lawrence switch identities, with hilarious results.
7. Independence Day
The performance that put Will Smith on the map, Independence Day is really an ensemble movie, but it’s hard to deny that Smith is its breakout. The movie follows the aftermath of an alien invasion, and Smith’s military pilot proves crucial to ultimately taking down the alien invaders. Independence Day is uncomplicated and universally beloved, and it’s also a hugely important touchstone in Smith’s career as a movie star.
6. The Pursuit of Happyness
In most people’s hands, The Pursuit of Happyness would be way too corny to ever work as a functional movie. Smith’s utter commitment makes the movie not just watchable, but fairly compelling. It also helps that he cast Jaden as his son in the film, and we watch the two of them struggle to make their dreams of a good life in America a reality. The larger questions about the movie’s political message are worth thinking about, but it’s hard to deny that Pursuit of Happyness works as the corniest kind of feel-good movie.
5. Men In Black
Will Smith is in full movie star bloom in Men in Black, and he finds an unlikely but perfect partner in Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent Jay. The platonic ideal of an action comedy, Men in Black is a perfect example of the kind of movie that feels largely extinct in 2022. Smith stars as a good cop who gets roped into a secret organization tasked with tracking alien life on the planet, and his incredulity at the very notion of such an organization is at least half the fun.
To his great credit, Will Smith knows when he needs to take a job seriously, and when he can just be charming. In Hitch, Smith plays a master dating impresario who helps other men find love. It’s an idea that probably wouldn’t fly in Hollywood today, but the great joy of the movie is watching Smith be demolished by a woman who finds all of his great date ideas horrifying for one reason or another. Hitch debase Smith just a little bit, and that’s why it’s so much fun.
3. King Richard
Smith got his third Oscar nomination for King Richard, and it’s one he definitely deserved. The role allows him to avoid the glamor of many of his most famous roles in favor of a grittier character study of the father of tennis sensations Venus and Serena Williams. King Richard is in large part about all the ways Richard Williams advocated for his children, but it’s unafraid to make the man more complicated than a straightforward hero. Ultimately, it’s those complications that allows Smith’s performance to sing.
Ali may be Will Smith’s most committed performance, and it shows. An actor who has made a career out of allowing his personality to shine through on screen largely disappears into the role of Cassius Clay, the boxer who would become Muhammad Ali. Smith is excellent in the role, which earned him his first Oscar nomination, in part because Ali is concerned not just with the greatness of its titular star but also with all of the political concerns that surrounded his run of excellence.
1. I Am Legend
Will Smith’s defining performance is the one that, above all others, proves he is a uniquely captivating screen presence. For more than half of I Am Legend, Smith is the only actor on screen, and his primary screen partner is a dog. He’s terrific as a man trying desperately to find a cure for a disease that has already taken everything away from him. In I Am Legend, the actor gets to be wounded, heroic, funny, and thoroughly captivating. It’s the definitive performance in a career filled with great work.