The Pursuit of Ranking Will Smith's Performances
How do you rank the performances of a man who has done it all? Played the devil? Check. Played a rapping fish? Check. Played a superhero? Check. Played a cop/government agent? A lot of checks. But in honor of Will Smith’s 50th birthday, we took on the impossible task of going through all of his film roles (sorry, Fresh Prince) and coming up with the definitive ranking of his cameos, awards nominations, and franchises. Let the pursuit begin.
30. After Earth (2013)
What else could be last? The actor himself has called the out-of-this-world flop the “most painful failure” of his career. In M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi film, Smith literally takes a backseat to his son Jaden, considering he’s basically just sitting immobilized throughout. The elder Smith doesn’t have to utlilize his patented charm in every film, but his performance here is next level flat, almost robot-like (He, Robot might be have been a better title).
29. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)
On paper, Will Smith playing an ESPN reporter in an Anchorman film sounds like something I dreamed up. In reality, be careful what you wish for. Not that Smith is bad, it’s just a wasted opportunity, just like the entire Anchorman 2 fight scene.
28. Where the Day Takes You (1992)
Despite Smith already being a Grammy-winner and TV star, he’s barely in his film debut, which stars the likes of Dermot Mulroney, Sean Astin, and Ricki Lake. Smith is fine in his very brief screen time as a crippled homeless teen, but if it wasn’t him in the role, you wouldn’t look or think twice about the character.
27. The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
Smith’s impressive run to end the 20th century comes to a screeching halt in 2000 (don’t blame Willenium) thanks to his first big screen swing and miss. While Smith is the title character in Robert Redford’s golf drama, he plays second fiddle to Matt Damon, not even showing up until 33 minutes in. The film has been criticized for its use of Smith as the “magical negro” and, unfortunately, he isn’t able to help raise the material above the stereotype.
26. Shark Tale (2004)
For his sole foray into animation, Smith voices a scheming, rapping fish named Oscar (too bad the film was only nominated for an Oscar). There’s really not much else to say as it’s exactly what you would think Will Smith voicing a rapping fish would be like.
25. Made in America (1993)
Smith’s second go-around on the big screen finds him playing fifth banana to Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson, Ted Danson’s cowboy hat, and Nia Long. And maybe for the only time in his life, Mr. Suave is a nerd, which he really dives into during a very awkward sperm donor scene where he literally does a Scooby Doo, “Huh?” The best thing to come out of this movie is setting up Long’s Fresh Prince run as Will’s girlfriend. (The worst thing: Ted Danson in blackface.)
24. Hancock (2008)
Easily the biggest disappointment on this list. Even though it was released pre-superhero film boom (two months after Iron Man), it’s unlikely that Hancock would have succeeded at any time, because it just isn’t that good. Don’t get me wrong, the concept is great. Will Smith as an alcoholic superhero is a winning idea. The execution, however, leaves a lot to be desired. And for once, the biggest problem might be Smith, who doesn’t get to showcase any of the reasons that we love him, instead being saddled with a bland, blank slate.
23. Suicide Squad (2016)
Smith’s second entry into the world of superheroes was about as successful as the first, as in it made a lot of money and wasn’t well-received by critics. A quick summary of Smith in Suicide Squad: He’s ripped, he continues to have good chemistry with Margot Robbie (their first pairing is still to come), and he’s tasked with delivering the often-mocked line, “So we’re some sort suicide squad?” Other than that, nothing Smith or the movie does has anyone anticipating the previously announced sequel.
22. Men in Black II (2002)
The weakest of the three Men in Black films suffers for many reasons, including becoming too cartoonish (did we really need Nick Cannon, Martha Stewart, and Michael Jackson cameos?) and, more importantly for our purposes, not giving Smith and his character, Agent J, anything interesting to do. A lot of the fun of the first film was Smith as the new guy and his shock and awe to the discovery of alien life, but with that gone, there’s no interesting trait to replace it. We wouldn’t mind if they neuralyzed our memories of MIIB.
21. I, Robot (2004)
After fighting Miami drug dealers, aliens, more aliens, the government, cowboys, George Foreman, more aliens, and more Miami drug dealers, Smith took on the next logical opponent: robots. In the sci-fi film I, Robot, he plays Del Spooner (top five Smith character name), a sideways beanie-wearing cop who hates robots. That’s not ideal when his most crucial relationships are with a robot and a cat. Smith gets to be angry and frustrated, but it’s one of his most forgettable roles and films.
20. Seven Pounds (2008)
When a film starts with the main character calling to report his own suicide, it’s unlikely that you’re in for an uplifiting ride. And that’s definitely the case in Seven Pounds, which finds Smith moping his way through it until he kills himself via jellyfish (yes, really). The No. 1 takeaway might actually be that for one of the few times in his career, Smith is outshined, with his Men in Black II costar Rosario Dawson doing the honors here.
19. Collateral Beauty (2016)
Don’t let this photo fool you — take away the first two minutes and Smith is almost entirely sad, depressed, and silent during this poorly-received drama. Until the film’s last 30 minutes or so, Smith is more of a plot device for the star-studded supporting cast. But, the appearances of “Love,” “Time,” and “Death” eventually bring him alive, leading to some strong emotional moments that come a little too late to help Collateral Beauty sneak into the top half of Smith’s peformances.
18. Wild Wild West (1999)
Hot take: Smith isn’t bad in Wild Wild West. Let’s be clear, Wild Wild West is bad, like really bad, but its star isn’t. While Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, and Salma Hayek all scored Razzie noms for their performances, Smith didn’t (I’m blaming Kline for Worst Screen Couple) and that’s because he was far from the problem, coasting on his charisma and ability to pull off a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and a jacket with no shirt. And if I’m being honest, I’m definitely giving extra points for the “Wild Wild West” theme song and the memorable MTV Movie Awards performance. A horse! Sisqo! Stevie Wonder! On second thought, maybe those should have been Smith’s costars.
17. Jersey Girl (2004)
It turns out that Will Smith is really good at playing Will Smith. In 2004, he took a break from blockbusters to cameo in Kevin Smith’s critical and commercial disappointment. Smith’s sole scene finds him navigating between comedy and drama, both saying he’s “ridiculously” hung and giving the sentimental parenting speech that inspires Ben Affleck’s character to give up the fast-paced corporate lifestyle in order to be a better father. Bonus points for Smith’s amazing 2004 movie star outfit!
16. Winter's Tale (2014)
Another cameo, another critical and commercial failure. But in Akiva Goldsman’s film, the actor plays the complete opposite of Will Smith: Lucifer. For the only time so far in his career, Smith takes on the role of a true evil person/being (a hitman with a heart of gold in Suicide Squad doesn’t count) and it was nice to see him briefly deviate from his movie star formula. The face-off with Russell Crowe’s demon is initially unremarkble, until Lucifer launches into a fierce and scary tirade that is unlike anything Smith has ever done.
15. Men in Black 3 (2012)
After being good for at least one movie every year during his peak, Smith’s four-year absence from the big screen for some reason comes to an end with Men in Black 3. It’s unclear who wanted or needed this film, but it’s still an improvement on its predecessor for a few reasons, all of which were related to Smith. There’s a fresh dynamic for Smith to play with as Josh Brolin stars as young Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones); Agent J’s amusing bewilderment is back; and the big final reveal gives Smith a nice emotional moment that neither of the first two films had.
14. Bright (2017)
Another instance where the execution doesn’t live up to the promise. Smith playing a grizzled, mustached veteran cop in a film from the writer behind Training Day sounds like a home run. And yet, the only thing knocked out of the park is a fairy (“Fairy lives don’t matter,” apparently). While the script and Joel Edgerton’s makeup do Smith no favors, he comes out mostly unscathed, doing his best to ground a story about orcs, elves, and a magic wand.
13. Aladdin (2019)
“A little Fresh Prince, little Hitch, and a whole lot of attitude.” That is how Will Smith’s take on Genie was described more than a year before the film came out. And, honestly, the only thing that could have gotten me more excited was if you threw in “a little Bad Boys.” But, even without some Mike Lowrey, Smith put his own spin on Robin Williams’ iconic character and made Aladdin fun and entertaining for every second he was onscreen. And, more importantly, Will Smith is rapping again!!
12. Concussion (2015)
“Tell the truth!” Smith’s character Bennet Omalu memorably demands of an NFL employee who is denying football’s effects on the brain. Well, the truth is that Concussion is a bad movie full of reported inaccuracies that is only watchable because of Smith’s understated performance. For once, he isn’t sad, funny, or cool; he’s determined. And like his past portrayals of real-life figures, the actor earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role.
11. Focus (2015)
The return of cool Will Smith! For some reason, after building a career on his charisma and charm, Smith went away from it for basically a decade, opting instead to be sad (Seven Pounds), dark (Winter’s Tale), or just straight boring (After Earth). But with Focus, at least very temporarily, Smith became cool again. (Following up with Concussion, Suicide Squad, Collateral Beauty, and Bright is why I say “very temporarily.”) Over the years, Smith has had hit-or-miss chemistry with his love interests, but the pairing with Margot Robbie is definitely a hit and initially gave one reason to be optimistic about Suicide Squad.
10. Bad Boys II (2003)
Eight years after first riding and dying together, Smith reunited with Martin Lawrence for Michael Bay’s high-octane sequel. Once again, Lawrence gets to be the real comedic star, while Smith is the movie star. The nonstop action doesn’t leave much room for Smith to stretch his acting muscles, but the back-and-forth between the two actors is a high point and maybe the most rapport that Smith has ever had with a costar (sorry, Tommy Lee Jones and Jada Pinkett Smith). Now if only we could finally get Bad Boys III before they are too old for this s—.
9. Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
Just before Smith catapulted to movie stardom in summer blockbusters, the rapper surprised audiences (and Hollywood!) in a truly dramatic turn, taking on the role of a young, gay con artist. Starring as the shady Paul, Smith plays a character playing a character and he more than holds his own against Ian McKellen, Donald Sutherland, and Stockard Channing, who he says he fell in love with after getting too into character. The one knock against Smith here is his reported refusal to kiss Anthony Michael Hall on the advice of Denzel Washington as to not damage his movie star appeal. (C’mon, 1993.)
8. Men in Black (1997)
While Bad Boys and Independence Day had Smith trending up, Men in Black is when he officially became a movie star. After Chris O’Donnell and David Schwimmer passed on playing NYPD cop-turned-rookie Agent J, Smith was somehow the next logical choice, turning in a character and performance that neither of the first two choices could have. Whether he’s cracking jokes or shouting in both fear and amazement about the presence of aliens, Smith shines bright.
7. Bad Boys (1995)
Arsenio Hall’s hilarious mistake is Will Smith’s gain as the Fresh Prince gets his first chance to be a big screen leading man. And he makes the most of the opportunity, oozing with swagger as ladies man Detective Mike Lowrey. But just like in the previously discussed sequel, Michael Bay’s buddy cop vehicle sets up Martin Lawrence, who was headlining his own sitcom, to be the real star. Don’t worry, though, because Smith got the last laugh with Bad Boys kicking off an epic four-year run and setting him up to soon become Hollywood’s most bankable star.
6. Independence Day (1996)
No offense, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, and Randy Quaid, but we kept wishing to go back to Smith, who doesn’t show up until 25 minutes into Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi classic. While the role of pilot Steven Hiller is just part of an ensemble, Smith is no doubt the true star, dominating every scene he’s in and nailing one-liners. “Welcome to Earth,” he says after punching an alien. “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.” Now that’s what I call a movie star-making performance.
5. Ali (2001)
Maybe the greatest compliment that can be paid to Smith’s performance as Muhammad Ali is that I can’t imagine anyone else playing the boxer. In many of his films, it’s hard to see past Will Smith. “Oh, that’s just Will Smith with a badge.” But here, you just see Ali. And the Academy agreed, giving Smith the first of his two Oscar nominations.
4. Enemy of the State (1998)
It’s not often that Smith plays an everyman. His first three lead roles featured him as a badass cop, a badass pilot fighting aliens, and a badass secret agent investigating alien activity. Here, in the underrated gem from director Tony Scott, he’s a lawyer who just happened to be at the wrong lingerie store at the wrong time. Not able to just skate on his charisma, Smith excels as being overwhelmed and out of his element. It might seem strange that a performance like this is above Ali, but often times pulling off a smart, action-packed thriller is even tougher than a biopic.
3. I Am Legend (2007)
Smith has had great chemistry with costars over the years, whether it’s Martin Lawrence or Tommy Lee Jones or Margot Robbie, and that streak continues in I Am Legend, even if the chemistry is with a dog and a mannequin. The magnetic actor has given heartbreaking perfomances before, but none like Dr. Robert Neville, who very might be the last man on Earth. During one 10-minute stretch, Smith shows enormous range as he is forced to put his dog down, and then emotionally unleashing on a female mannequin. It’s quite possibly the best work of his entire career. Legendary, indeed.
2. Hitch (2005)
Disclaimer: I’ve been accused a time or two of talking too much about Hitch, a.k.a. the greatest rom-com ever made. But it’s for good reason! The only full-on rom-com of Smith’s career came a few years after the peak of his powers, but still in the midst of his prime, and he gets to perfectly play many versions of the date doctor: charming Hitch, allergic reaction Hitch, flustered Hitch, embarrassed Hitch, nerd Hitch. And it’s almost impossible to pick just one scene to highlight; it could be meeting Sara (Eva Mendes) for the first time, or teaching Albert (Kevin James) how to dance, or Hitch and Albert kissing, or the speed dating confrontation. You know what, just go watch the whole movie and fall in love all over again.
1. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
It seems fitting that Smith’s best and worst performances featured him acting alongside his son Jaden. As you’ve noticed, I’m not a big fan of sad Will Smith, but this is the exception to the rule. Throughout the film, he wears his pain on his sleeve, constantly breaking your heart, whether he’s giving away his character’s last $5 or locked inside a subway bathroom, crying and holding on tight to his sleeping son. The emotional portrayal of homeless salesman/aspiring stockbroker Chris Gardner earned Smith the second of his two Oscar nominations, and hopefully not his last.