On the action film's 25th anniversary, EW revisits the beginning of an all-time movie star run.

By Derek Lawrence
April 07, 2020 at 08:30 AM EDT
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"Now that's how you become the biggest movie star on the planet! From now on, that's how you act!"

Okay, that's not technically Will Smith's big line in the final moments of 1995's Bad Boys, but it might as well have been.

Back in January, the long-awaited threequel Bad Boys for Life finally arrived in theaters and became a smash hit, showing the true staying power of this action-comedy franchise. And on Tuesday, the original film from director Michael Bay marks its 25th anniversary, which also means it's been two and a half decades since Smith catapulted himself to another level of screen success and began one of the most memorable movie stars run in recent history.

It's hard to believe there was a time when people were unsure of Smith's acting bona fides. But before he was filling theaters, he was filling venues as a Grammy-winning rapper, and in the era when every comedian was getting their own chance to be the next Seinfeld, a TV series was built around Smith, who had no acting credits to his name. And yet The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would flourish, thanks to a strong supporting cast and Smith's undeniable charm. During the early years of the NBC comedy, Smith branched out and landed supporting roles in three films: Where the Day Takes You, Made in America, and Six Degrees of Separation. The first two were unremarkable and didn't give any sense that Smith was destined for movie greatness, while Six Degrees featured him as a young, gay con artist and showed flashes of Smith's true acting ability. (Even today, Six Degrees stands as his riskiest and most boundary-pushing role.)

But this was still a very different Hollywood. Nowadays, A-listers routinely jump back and forth between film and television, with the latter medium not being looked down upon. That wasn't the case when Smith was attempting to make the leap to the big screen, as there was a true separation between TV star and movie star. And it took many breaks for Smith to land his first starring role. The Bad Boys that we know and love was far from the original pitch. Saturday Night Live stars Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey had been envisioned as the leads of a New York-set film, before the project evolved and cast Martin star Martin Lawrence, who was one of the industry's biggest comedians and had appeared in House Party and Boomerang. Smith was stuck behind bigger names, as Coming to America alum and talk show host Arsenio Hall was approached for the role of rich playboy cop Mike Lowrey. Hall would pass, a decision he's copped to regretting. That left an opening, and with Lawrence having earned enough juice to pick his own costar, his sister brought Smith to his attention. “I had dinner with Will and after five minutes of talking, he got the job,” Lawrence, who starred as Det. Marcus Burnett, recently told EW. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

No offense to Big Momma's House and Wild Hogs, but it was probably the best decision. Not only was Smith ready for the opportunity, but the chemistry between the two has yet to be matched by either on their other projects. The duo clicked from the very first scene in Bad Boys, perfectly bickering with each other and then nailing the timing of beating the crap out of a group of guys trying to steal Mike's car, including a struggling comedian. Knocking the criminal to the ground and pulling his gun, Mike declares, "Now let's hear one of those jokes, bitch." Cue the opening credits. That is how you open a movie!

And that was just the beginning of Smith's star-making turn. Throughout the movie, he showed that he could fight, he could make you laugh, he could be sexy, he could get to you to say "Hell yeah" when he takes down the bad guys, and he could ooze coolness, which would become his signature. (Cool Will Smith always reigned supreme over sad Will Smith in EW's ranking of his film roles.) "Everybody wants to be like Mike," Lowery says after smoothly sinking a jump shot. After Bad Boys, everybody wanted a piece of Will.

Following the film's success, Smith returned for the sixth and final season of Fresh Prince, allowing him to then fully take over Hollywood only a few months later with Independence Day. In Roland Emmerich's sci-fi blockbuster, which earned more than $800 million worldwide, Smith doesn't show up until 25 minutes in, and the role of pilot Steven Hiller is just part of an ensemble. But Smith is no doubt the true star, dominating every scene he's in and nailing one-liners like "Welcome to Earth" after punching an alien. A year later, Smith kept the Fourth of July heat coming with Men in Black and another $600 million at the box office. The man owned a holiday. Then in November 1998, he starred in the criminally underrated spy thriller Enemy of the State, which grossed a respectable $250 million. It was a four-year, four-movie run that turned him into the most powerful actor in Hollywood (not to mention what he was doing in the music world at the time with his Grammy-winning album Big Willie Style).

Of course, no one stays hot forever, and Wild Wild West would prove that, becoming an infamous bomb during Fourth of July weekend in 1999. (Even so, EW is here to defend the Western action comedy). Smith didn't own this Willennium like he did the end of the '90s, but he reached heights that not many others have, and continued to deliver in the subsequent years, whether it was with Oscar-winning performances, the greatest rom-com of all-time, or still being a successful Bad Boy 25 years later. And like a Bad Boy, he'll be the movie star of a generation… for life.

Related content:

Bad Boys (Movie - 1995)

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  • Michael Bay

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