The 20 best Will Smith films – ranked!

Soon to be seen as the father of Venus and Serena Williams in the Oscar-tipped King Richard, Smith has lent his everyman charm to comedies, sci-fi and even a buddy movie pairing a cop with an orc

20. Collateral Beauty (2016)

Will Smith has made many more than 20 films, but the economy of critical pain means this must always feature at the bottom of any list of any length. A horrifyingly cutesy, toxic dramedy with Smith as the tech entrepreneur, who loses his child to cancer and then starts writing impassioned letters to abstract concepts such as Death, Love and Time.

19. Seven Pounds (2008)

This romantic mystery weepie is guaranteed to make you break out in hives. Smith is a haunted, troubled, decent man; a government employee who has embarked on an enigmatic mission: to seek out good people – wheresoe’er they be – and reward them. Why is he engaged on this supremely condescending quest? Who cares?

18. After Earth (2013)

A strong career strand for Smith is sci-fi (of which more later) but M Night Shyamalan was still in his phase of continuing awfulness when he directed this entirely terrible, ponderous sci-fi drama. Smith plays an astronaut of the future with the unfortunate name of Cypher, who crashes on the ruined and deserted planet Earth with his son, Kitai, played by Smith’s son, Jaden. A reminder of what Sam Goldwyn once said to Albert Einstein: “I got a theory of relatives, too: don’t hire ’em.”

The Legend of Bagger Vance
With Matt Damon in The Legend of Bagger Vance. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Allstar

17. The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)

Robert Redford directed Smith in this sentimental slice of naively picturesque Americana set in the Jazz Age south. Matt Damon is a wealthy young golfer whose traumatised experiences in the first world war cause him to – gasp! – lose his love for golf. But the beamingly wise Bagger Vance, played by Smith, turns up as his caddy and guardian angel, the black character whose function is to facilitate the white hero’s redemption.

16. Wild Wild West (1999)

Smith took a critical and commercial bath at the end of the 90s with this steampunky western comedy-thriller. It is supremely annoying, but sometimes amusingly daft and Smith performs the catchy theme tune (sampling Stevie Wonder) over the closing credits. In the post Civil War US, he is sexy government agent James “Wild Wild” West taking on Kenneth Branagh’s evil genius Dr Loveless, who has access to 23rd-century technology.

15. Hitch (2005)

As well as troubled emotional-journey-takers, Smith has played his share of romcom heroes-with-a-twist. Here is a ripe example. He is dating coach Alex “Hitch” Hitchens who teaches lonely guys how to be a success with women; then he falls for gossip columnist Eva Mendes, who disdains him. His nickname adorably fuses the concept of “getting married” with “problem”, geddit?

Will Smith in Hancock. Photograph: Sony Pictures/Allstar

14. Hancock (2008)

Back again to Smith sci-fi, and here is an offbeat, oddball comedy variant on the genre. He is Hancock, the smelly unshaven superhero that no one likes, who flies around irresponsibly, accidentally smashes up cars and buildings and annoys everyone. PR man Jason Bateman makes it his business to clean up Hancock’s act and reposition him in the crime-fighting marketplace.

13. Gemini Man (2019)

Here’s a sci-fi thriller with state-of-the-art youthification technology from director Ang Lee that maybe gestures at Smith’s sense of his own mortality as an action hero. He is Brogan, a supercool special forces assassin who discovers that his corrupt government bosses have hired a gunman to whack him – and it’s a creepy cloned version of his twentysomething self.

Will Smith
Will Smith in I, Robot. Photograph: Digital Domain/20th Century Fox/Allstar

12. I, Robot (2004)

Smith bulked up and toughened up for this hit sci-fi movie taken from the Isaac Asimov short story collection. The year is 2035 and Smith is playing troubled technophobic Chicago cop Del Spooner, who can’t stand the robots that are increasingly being used by law-enforcement. And who can blame him, when one of these robots goes terrifyingly rogue? Sadly, there is something robotically bland about the whole film.

11. Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad was the DC Extended Universe film that was never as bad as everyone said, and Smith made an amiable contribution as someone with both comedy and action chops. He is Floyd Lawton, or Deadshot, part of the Suicide Squad of supervillains assembled to fight other bad guys. Deadshot is the deadly hitman with the infrared scope over his eye. But he is a big softie when it comes to his infant daughter.

Will Smith Bright
Will Smith in Bright (orc not pictured). Photograph: Scott Garfield/Netflix/Allstar

10. Bright (2017)

It’s just so ridiculous you can’t help smiling: a wacky fantasy action thriller in which Smith plays a tough LAPD officer whose partner is … an orc, played by Joel Edgerton in heavy makeup. Yes. In this alternative universe, these Tolkienian creatures walk among us, subject to racism (there is an “Orc Lives Matter” theme), and Smith and the orc have a lot of “odd couple buddy cop“ energy. There are also wicked elves, nice elves and centaur traffic cops.

9. Bad Boys franchise

In 1995, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer gave us what is arguably the last of the big guilty-pleasure dumb action comedy-thriller franchises, teaming Smith with that lost superstar of bad-taste comedy Martin Lawrence as two squabbling Miami cops, Smith being the cool single ladies’ man and Lawrence the harassed husband and father. In the micro-ranking, the overlong and boorish sequel Bad Boys II (2003) comes in last, while the threequel, Bad Boys for Life (2020) acknowledges the passing years. But the original Bad Boys (1995) is the best, with the outrageous action standbys of guns, car-chases and smart-alec tag lines.

8. Enemy of the State (1998)

Smith made a very likable lead in this decent and watchable conspiracy thriller, a little like The Firm directed by Tony Scott and pairing Smith with Gene Hackman. Smith is the ambitious young lawyer who accidentally comes into possession of a video showing an outspoken congressman being murdered – and then he is framed by shadowy forces, losing his job and his marriage. Then the maverick intelligence officer played by Hackman steps in, a man who loathes government corruption and in an “odd couple” way helps the decent Smith.

7. I Am Legend (2007)

This dystopian sci-fi, based on the Richard Matheson novel (and already filmed as The Omega Man in 1971 with Charlton Heston) got a new version in 2007, starring Smith playing the last man left alive in an eerily empty, ruined Manhattan, an urban jungle with zoo-bred animals roaming around. The movie plays to Smith’s strengths as the good-natured everyman hero under unimaginable pressure.

The Pursuit of Happyness
With Jaden Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness. Photograph: Sony Pictures/Allstar

6. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Just for once, Smith stars in a heartwarmer that isn’t absolutely sickening, making this unfashionable movie genre actually seem pretty decent. This is the Horatio Alger-type true story of American businessman Chris Gardner who experienced hardship and homelessness on his way to the top. Smith plays him as a regular guy with idealism and high standards, a single dad who finds himself tipping into poverty and fights his way out.

5. Independence Day (1996)

The clunking 2016 sequel to this film is now known chiefly for Boris Johnson using it as a pro-Brexit rallying cry, but the original is a very enjoyable, brash piece of entertainment: an alien invasion disaster movie that featured the (almost shocking) spectacle of the White House getting zapped. Jeff Goldblum was the quirky computer genius, Bill Pullman played one of the many quasi-Bill-Clinton US presidents of that era. But Smith stole the show as the swaggering hotshot fighter pilot who takes on the creepy invaders.

Will Smith
Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy

4. Ali (2001)

With care, gravitas and charm, Smith gave a very good impersonation of Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s virile biopic, taking us from the boxer’s defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964, through to his conscientious stand against the Vietnam draft and the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in the next decade. It is a strong and heartfelt performance, a rare and perhaps unique example of Smith being really technically challenged as an actor.

3. Aladdin (2019)

Many were nervous at the thought of Smith taking over from Robin Williams as the genie for the Disney live-action remake of Aladdin in 2019; others were uneasy at the potential for all sorts of tone-deaf orientalist offence. But, actually, Smith’s signature goofy charm is allowed to flourish in this likably zany, high-energy comedy in which Smith is allowed to steal every scene he’s in. A reminder that comedy was his original vocation.

2. Men in Black franchise

Smith and (initially) Tommy Lee Jones are the two government agents dressed in black, the sci-fi version of the Blues Brothers, and their job is to combat aliens while covering up evidence of their existence, erasing witnesses’ memories with a special wand. The place of shame is occupied by the dismal fourquel Men in Black: International (2019) in which the thrill had gone; next is the low-morale immediate follow-up Men in Black II (2002); oddly, Men in Black 3(2012) was rather better with Josh Brolin pepping things up. But the original and best is Men in Black (1997) in which Smith was in his box-office golden age as the funny, wacky, charismatic Hollywood lead.

Six Degrees of Separation
With Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation. Photograph: Mgm/Allstar

1. Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

Smith was hardly out of his Fresh Prince career phase when he scored his most substantial and satisfying success in director Fred Schepisi’s filmed version of the John Guare play. Smith plays a charming Mr Ripley figure, a young man who cons his way into the lives of two wealthy high-society types, played by Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland, claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier, so cunningly and tacitly playing on their liberal white guilt about race. Smith is charismatic and unsettling; it is still his masterpiece.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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