Will Smith occupies a weird, albeit essential, place in movie history.
For one thing, the range of his cinematic work isn’t as full of gravitas as Morgan Freeman, nor is he as calculated in craft as Denzel Washington (nor, as the ladies would claim, classically handsome), but imagine a world without any of his action flicks or his macho one-liners and the dropping of many popcorns in their sorrowful uneaten state were heard in movie theaters across the globe.
While his dramatic work does edge into the territory of legit thespian, it is his curse and gift that we will forever remember him better as the dude firing a miniscule gun against a gigantic marauding alien or delivering a line like “Put the gun down, and get me a pack of Tropical Fruit Bubblicious” with about as much heft and rhyme as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with a pistol.
And now comes the latest buddy cop meets genre mash-up in the Netflix-produced Bright, where Will Smith plays the put upon LAPD detective Scott Ward in an alt universe Los Angeles where once mythical races like orcs, Elves, Centaurs, and even Fairies live alongside the rest of humanity.
While Joel Edgerton plays the tragic and bullied figure of the first Orcish police officer, unfortunately paired with Smith’s Ward, with as much subtlety and layers of profundity under literal layers of prosthetic make-up, it is Bright’s conceit of modern magic and world-building ambition that marries into the police procedural genre like mixing dishes to produce an inventive haute cuisine.
Director David Ayer’s aspirations for grit and the high fantasy concept never really fly into the spirit of things in Bright and often sink into a rookie morass of trying to put in too many plot points and complex details from the get-go, it is with much interest that we’d like to see this alt world develop in the sequel (now pretty much confirmed).
In the realm of urban fantasy, it would be advisable to dig into the details already laid out in this movie to bring the characters (specially Edgerton’s Jakoby) into much needed emotional light. And true heft of meaning for pathos. Hey, David. Please call up Guillermo Del Toro for counsel and take notes.
In the lead-up to the latest Will Smith-as-cop movie, here are some of the best and most entertaining Will Smith action movies to get your blood up, your ‘hood swagger on, and just maybe your gun off.
Wild Wild West (1999)
A steampunk meets cowboys movie? Definitely one of the weirder and yet most watchable movies in Mr. Smith’s oeuvre. While it was almost universally panned, the story was shot full of clichés, and the chemistry between Smith and Kline were at best at a slapstick three Stooges level, it did produce three good things: the kind of stupid, gun-toting laughs that lands you in the Razzie Awards shortlist, the LSS song of that fin de siecle year (you know you remember the lyrics, boy), and Salma Hayek’s jaw-dropping curves in a Frankensteined amalgam of an 1800’s bustier and chorus girl outfit.
Best Will Smith line: “Why isn't this thing avanti-ing?!”
This is likely the movie that later cinched Smith the Deadshot role, because here he plays the titular alcoholic superhero John Hancock in need of a PR makeover. While Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron provide ballast for Smith to put in some nuance to his character his Bull in a China Shop school of acting wins the day and actually imbues the burly and grumpy superman rip-off with a sense of bumbling tragicomedy.
Best Will Smith line:
Asian Gang Member: “What? I'm not Japanese, man! Put us down!”
Hancock: “Oh, now you speak ‘Engly,’ huh? ‘Speak Engly,’ now?”
Men in Black series (1997)
The first MIB is enshrined in my memory for the way the Worm Guys were that crazy combo of disgusting and essential. Also, Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Agents K and J have genuine buddy-buddy chemistry and this is the grand tragedy of the MIB series: making Jones, one of the finest actors of our time into a caricature with this as his most memorable and popular role. Sad, but definitely true. Meanwhile, hey aliens live among us and the MIB immigration slash policing skills of reluctant noob and ex-NYPD Will Smith is the kind of ride-along pure popcorn popper high benchmark we’ve all come to love.
Best Will Smith line: “You know what the difference is between you and me? I make this look GOOD.”
Independence Day (1996)
Will Smith as a pilot. Do these surprises ever end? Even though he plays second fiddle to the larger arcs of Bill Pullman (the US Prez) and Jeff Goldblum (another mad scientist role), it is Smith’s swaggering USMC pilot Captain Steven Hiller that provides physicality to the show. Who can forget him luring his alien attacker to the enclosed spaces of the Grand Canyon and then pawning his plane, forcing the alien to crash, then capturing the injured alien pilot and eventually delivering him to the scientists at Area 51? There’s a reason they wanted to re-capture the old magic and tried a pretty bad reboot back in 2016.
Best Will Smith line: [Capt. Hiller opens the spaceship and punches the alien pilot in the head] “Welcome to Earth!”
I Robot (2004)
It’s hard to go wrong with an Isaac Asimov story, with Akiva Goldsman co-writing, and Alex Proyas in the director’s chair. But as a cop in a dystopic world where AI have become commonplace, Smith’s beat cop Del Spooner is suffering from the kind of PTSD that reminds you every day you have a cybernetic arm as a permanent memento. With high concepts played out in terra firma narrative like the Three Laws of Robotics and the kind of run-and-gun action we’ve come to expect from a Will Smith starrer (and opposite Bridget Moynahan who stars as, I kid you not, a robot psychologist) you actually have whiz bangs and existential questions to satisfy both brain cells and need for brawny spectacle.
Best Will Smith line: “Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?”
Bad Boys I (1995)
Of all places, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, as detectives Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, make Miami the backdrop to their Vice cops on a permanent macho trip epic. Of course, the gorgeous Tea Leoni (damn you, David Duchovny) needs to be the stripper/prostitute that needs their in-house witness protection. Count in Joe Pantoliano as Miami PD’s Captain Conrad Howard, some essential misogynistic jokes, dick references, and the whole shtick is complete for a recipe of explosion, car chases, and Boyz in Da Hood aphorisms. Also known as two hip detectives try their damnest to keep a murder witness alive while investigating a case of stolen heroin.
Best Will Smith line: “Everybody wants to be like Mike!”
I Am Legend (2007)
It must be hard to film a post-apocalyptic vampire movie taken from the Richard Matheson masterpiece and basically be the only human character throughout. Oh, and there’s a German Shepherd named Sam. Smith actually acquits himself well here with his own version of 127 Hours, except without the Oscar-caliber thespianism. The title refers to how US Army virologist Robert Neville became almost a mythical figure to the vampire race with the way he would systematically capture and experiment on members of said people as he’s trying to find a cure. He’s their own version of a Bogeyman. I don’t know if it’s all the time he spent trying to mimic the forlorn expression of Di Caprio or Tommy Lee Jones, or the desolate New York set pieces, but Smith shines well here. Or maybe it’s just because the dog automatically imbues him with charisma? But, damn, if this isn’t watchable and, at turns, intensely suspenseful.
Best Will Smith line: [To mannequin] “I promised a friend I would say hello to you today.” [begins to cry] “Please...say hello to me.”
Enemy of the State (1998)
One of the early Holy Grails of conspiracy theory movies, it’s a pattern by now that if you give Will Smith incredible actors to work with, his game also exponentially improves. Well, if the Gene Hackman and Smith tandem oozing with genuine frisson doesn’t get it up for you, then the double combo of a Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer story and breakneck pace will reduce you to a sniveling mess of eye bleed and yawps. While Smith plays put upon labor lawyer Robert Clayton Dean as the hapless straight guy dropped in a shark tank, the story of a group of NSA agents that is conspiring to kill a Congressman and the subsequent cover up, ensures that this is a rollercoaster from start to finish.
Best Will Smith line: “I believe the term ‘shyster’ is reserved for attorneys of the Jewish persuasion. I believe the proper term for me is ‘eggplant.’”