Will Smith became known for his boundless comedic wit and charm in his breakout role in the beloved television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Playing a character that was based on Smith himself, the role and story first introduced the actor, who started his career as a rapper, to audiences across America. With comedic chops and an endless energy, he was an endearing central figure that ate the role up.
Even as the show set him up as one to watch for his comedic abilities, Smith has proven he is more than capable of taking on more dramatic roles. With Smith taking on one such role in the upcoming film King Richard, where he plays the father of the iconic tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, it is worth looking at all the times he has put on strong dramatic displays.
7. Enemy of the State
This 1998 thriller from director Tony Scott is a remarkably prescient look at an expanding surveillance state that threatens any concept of individual privacy in the name of some elusive concept of state security. In it, Smith is labor lawyer Robert Clayton Dean who becomes the target of a corrupt politician using a rogue NSA to cover up a murder. He will team up with the mysterious Brill (Gene Hackman) in order to turn the tables on his tormentors and bring them to justice.
Smith and Hackman have a great chemistry as they find themselves facing dire situation after dire situation. Through it all, Smith brings a grounded sensibility that is mixed with his customary charm. As the world closes in around him, his performance really makes you feel for him and how bleak things are.
Before you say it, Hancock is a deeply flawed film. It is often melodramatic and forced, never quite managing to fly straight. This is much in line with Smith’s character, the titular Hancock, who is a drunk and bitter superhero that reluctantly goes about the duties of saving people. However, he leaves a whole swath of damage in his wake and is generally despised by the public at large. What works is how Smith fully commits to being both a snarky and sarcastic figure who doesn’t really want to be a hero. The isolation that has come with his power is a heavy weight on his shoulders as he struggles to find any sense of connection to the world around him.
When he does begin to open up and care for those around him, you find yourself invested despite the eccentricity of the situation. Smith plays Hancock with a shell of gruffness because that is what he has done to protect himself from feeling anything. The shedding of that shell and the transformation of his character has stuck in my mind as being a strong performance. While not a wholly successful film overall, the way Smith carries himself throughout is genuinely engaging. You care about this deeply flawed man and hope to see him find something resembling peace in his life. Smith’s performance ensures that it works more than it ever should have.
5. I, Robot
In a similar vein to the prior entry, this science fiction noir is far from great but still has a strong central performance from Smith. He plays a detective named Del Spooner. Smith is committed to this character, who is the hardest of hard boiled because of a loss in his past. When he is tasked with investigating the suspicious death of the founder of a robotics company, Del will have to confront both his past and his future in order to prevent the world from being thrown into chaos.
The personal pain he has endured and the guilt he carries with him makes his distrust of the artificially intelligent robots a difficult hurdle to overcome. As he begins to care for and build a bond with a robot named Sonny (Alan Tudyk), you believe in the growth of the character. The back and forth they have with each other proves to be a bright spot in an otherwise mixed bag of a film. Despite all the hangups, Smith ensures you feel compassion for his character as he works to fix both the external as well as the internal crises of his world. The film manages to keep you hooked because of his strong central performance.
4. The Pursuit of Happyness
It is through solid performances that The Pursuit of Happyness finds a compelling core as a story of one father trying to make his way in the world. Smith plays the real-life Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman who falls on hard times and becomes homeless. Based on the memoir of the same name, the film follows Chris as he must find a way to raise his son (Jaden Smith) while finding a way to get back on his feet. It is the type of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps'' narrative that lacks a great degree of nuance about the circumstances of poverty. The film side steps any sort of honest conversation about the systemic forces that make our world what it is.
However, the film has a great degree of compassion for the character and Smith never loses sight of his humanity. The many scenes where the father and son have frank conversations about the world are unequivocally the best part. Even as it approaches the story with a simplistic understanding of the deeper themes, Smith elevates the material through his relentless pursuit of a better life. Even as the film focuses on a man who manages to hustle his way out, the tenuous nature of his life shows how he very easily could have fallen further. Smith captures that pain and anxiety with a grace that makes it impossible not to care deeply for him. In a flawed film, he remains a powerful presence.
3. I Am Legend
Even as parts of I Am Legend fall short of its greatest aspirations, it is through Smith’s dedicated performance as a man left alone in a deadly world that the film remains a profound piece of work. Smith plays Robert Neville, a virologist and sole survivor of a deadly plague. He now spends his days wandering New York with his dog and talking to mannequins to recreate something resembling human connection. Robert is not quite alone as the city has now become overrun by vampire-like mutants who threaten to kill him every night. An early scene where he cowers in a bathtub with his dog as the creatures tear apart the city around him is terrifying, with Smith establishing the stakes without saying a word.
The rest of the film is similarly frightening as Robert works day and night to find a cure for the mutants to return them to their human form. As he becomes increasingly lost in his isolation, Smith peels back the layers of his character to show just how broken he has become. It is a film that lives or dies by his performance as he is often the only character to be found. Flashbacks fill in the gaps about what happened to those he loved, showing why he has no one left to be with. Every scene of him desperately fighting for a cure is understated yet incredibly effective, with Smith becoming increasingly disillusioned in what may be a futile pursuit. Smith makes his performance one that stands out in the apocalyptic subgenre in every single moment he gets on screen.
2. King Richard
The newest film on this list, King Richard is a delicate portrait of a flawed yet loving father who is trying to do the best for his family. He trains his daughters, Venus and Serena, in tennis during the day while working shifts during the night. He does this just to make sure they have a chance at a better life where they can be recognized for their talents. Richard loves and cares for them deeply, though he often struggles to show it. Smith doesn’t just do a performance that replicates the mannerisms and delivery of the man, though he does fully embody that as well. What he does is capture the emotional state and larger-than-life persona Richard built that masked a deeper, haunting fear about the world. He has been through hard times as a Black man living in America and he carries that with him.
This has left him with deep wounds. Smith offers glimpses of the pain he has had to endure and how that shapes his life. There is even a moment of darkness where he almost commits an act of violence as retribution that shows just how tenuous his dream for his children is. It is a respectful yet comprehensive performance, giving life to all the details of who Richard is as a man. Smith completely disappears into the role, giving it his all in one of his most memorable performances of recent years. There is just so much to latch on to and love about the craft on display here.
Michael Mann's towering 2001 film Ali had a Herculean task before it. How do you capture one of history’s most iconic figures in one single film? No film could ever capture all of who Muhammad Ali was, though this one certainly comes as close as one could hope. Smith is able to get both the humor and bravado of the famous boxer as well as the deeper convictions held by Ali throughout his life. Even as he authentically hits every note of the fights, Smith shines in the moments between the fights. It is in the looks behind the curtain where we get to learn about the man in quiet scenes.
It is in these quiet moments where he contemplates his future that you really feel a deeper connection to who Ali was. He was deeply funny and witty, truly one of the great all-time trash talkers, while also being a deeply contemplative man. The strongest moments come from showing Ali’s deep opposition to the Vietnam war and how he faced prolonged consequences for it. It was a stand that would threaten his freedom and future, making it all the more courageous that he took it. Smith pays tribute to these parts of Ali, giving a full look at all he was. It remains his most commanding and compelling performance that may never be matched because of just how completely perfect it is.
She also talks about what were some of the things she heard about the story that she figured were made up but were actually true.
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