Will Smith’s Top 10 Performances

on January 14, 2020, 12:00am
view all

10. Nicky

Focus (2015)

Will Smith's Top 10 Performances

Focus (Warner Bros.)

On the surface, Focus is a minor entry in Smith’s filmography. And while the level of intrigue between the actor and his costar Margot Robbie is far more memorable than the film itself, this outing saw Big Will at a bit of a crossroads. Released in 2015, Smith was coming off a string of failures that were getting pretty embarrassing from a critical perspective. He tried young adult sci-fi and came back for a third Men in Black sequel after his role in prestige pictures started to fade. At this point, it had been eight years since his last bonafide hit.

By taking a chance with this duplicitous thriller, Smith was reigniting his sex appeal and his ability to engage with an adult audience. As Nicky, a conman who has a penchant for gambling indulgences, he straddles the line between magnetic romantic lead and a complete degenerate. Despite the film’s mismanaged twists and turns, the sheer power of watching Smith and Robbie’s emotional tango makes it far too enticing to look away. This was a welcome return to form for Smith, who manages to thrive as an unlikeable character.

Best Line: “Attention is like a spotlight … and our job is to dance in the darkness.”

–James Clay

09. Mike Lowery

Bad Boys (1995)

Bad Boys

Bad Boys (Columbia Pictures)

At the tail end of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Smith began to seriously contemplate what his post-television career would look like. He’d just starred in the drama Six Degrees of Separation (1993) as a con artist, but he needed a persona that took advantage of his natural qualities. To his advantage came Michael Bay’s Bad Boys, where the sky is never blue, it’s orange. Bay’s debut film marked Smith’s fourth and his first action flick. Still green, components of his Fresh Prince character pervades Bad Boys’ Mike Lowery: He’s a smooth talking lady’s man.

Furthermore, he’s far more derogatory than Smith’s cultivated wholesome image. Lowery dodges bullets, fiery explosions, and ex-lovers while he and his partner Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) solve a heist, take down a drug kingpin, and protect a witness. Smith often thrives when he has a foil, and Lawrence bounces off the young star easily as the two trade barbs, even while supporting one another. The movie proved Smith’s ability to carry a soon-to-be franchise—and served as the first sketch of the “Big Willie” template.

Best Line: “Now that’s how you drive! From now on… That’s how you drive!”

–Robert Daniels

08. Chris Gardner

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Will Smith's Top 10 Performances

The Pursuit of Happyness (Columbia Pictures)

The Pursuit of Happyness marked Smith’s first collaboration with Italian director Gabrielle Muccino, who he teamed up with again in 2008 on the strangely misguided Seven Pounds. As he was maturing as a performer and into the realm of prestige filmmaking, Happyness earned Smith his second Oscar nomination and provided the opportunity to collaborate with his then-eight-year-old son Jaden. It’s easy to see what drew Smith to this material as a father himself; he will do anything to make sure his family name is advanced. Now that provides a whole different context reading into his celebrity status, versus the simplicity of a father scrounging to pay his rent.

In 2006 the family drama packed a real wallop in the emotional baggage department with Smith operating outside of his normal wheelhouse by playing an everyman named Chris Gardner, who has a serious financial situation on his hands. When the film lays on the schmaltz a little thick, it’s Smith’s portrayal of Gardner that elevates the material into his most relatable role to date. With every poor financial decision Gardner makes, Muccino and Smith never pass judgment as the film sheds any ounce of cynicism lurking at its core. Their collaboration finds a balance between overly earnest and improbable, to being genuinely affecting. He knows that crying on the floor of a public bathroom while holding your adolescent son will cue the waterworks from his audience.

At this point in his career, the general movie-going public was like putty in his hands.

Best Line : “Maybe happiness is something we can only pursue. And maybe we can never actually have it…no matter what.”

–James Clay

07. Robert Clayton Dean

Enemy of the State (1998)

Will Smith's Top 10 Performances

Enemy of the State (Buena Vista Pictures)

By 1998, Smith had played young hotshots who matured over the course of the narrative, like Hiller (Independence Day), Jay (Men in Black), and Lowery (Bad Boys). In Tony Scott’s spy action-thriller Enemy of the State, Smith portrays Robert Clayton Dean—a married father and labor lawyer. After unwittingly being embroiled in a high-stakes murder of a Congressman, the NSA destroys his life in a bid to discredit the murder evidence he holds. He loses his job, wife, and bank accounts—in a film that explores the dangers of a surveillance state.

Unlike his previous roles — a pilot, cop, and an undercover agent for a secret organization — the character is supremely out of his depth, bumbling against a corrupt government agency using surveillance trackers. Scott pairs the young Smith with the veteran Gene Hackman, who plays an off-the-radar tech expert Brill. Copying the dynamic between the young actor and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black (1997), the two display a cranky but endearing chemistry. Here, Smith’s heroism isn’t born through innate skill; he learns and adapts from an everyman to a novice techie. His most mature role would foreshadow his later dramatic turns in Ali (2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006).

Best Line: “I’m sick of this. You either shoot me, or tell me what the hell is going on!”

–Robert Daniels

06. Robert Neville

I Am Legend (2007)

Will Smith's Top 10 Performances

I Am Legend (Warner Bros.)

There are a couple of ways to look at I Am Legend. With a movie star at its center, it works as a high concept whirlwind about the last living man on earth, surrounded by bloodsucking shells of our former selves. But you can also look at as a cerebral transgressive blockbuster that rests its laurels on dissecting power dynamics and asking the timeless question, “Who are the real monsters?”

Either way, Smith found success as brooding scientist Robert Neville, whose virus has left the human race extinct. All that remains of his identity is a capable German Shepard named Sam and daily trips to the video store, where he talks to mannequins. While solitude is certainly bliss, Smith finds emotional weight while grappling with his own mistakes and his new place in this world.

Smith plays Neville as a man hellbent on atoning his sins. Francis Lawrence’s direction brings a cinematic scope to a film that has to inorganically create tension, and while Akiva Goldsman’s script nearly derails the process at every turn, Smith holds it all together. At 101 minutes, this is one of Smith’s most efficient films that begs its viewers to let go of the past, and step into the future.

Best Line: “Don’t worry about a thing because every little thing gonna be alright.” True this is a song lyric, but Smith mumbles this Bob Marley ditty in a sobering scene alongside his dog.

–James Clay

view all