With Gemini Man having dropped, I look back on some of the more ‘interesting’ movies of the Fresh Prince’s blockbuster career. I use the word interesting as these, in the main, aren’t the best of the bunch. Let’s start with my ranking of his best…
There’s a good smattering of event movies and prestige dramas there. Smith started out as a kids sitcom star and a pop rapper so the career he carved for himself as THE box office force to be reckoned with is unparalleled. A running joke in the early 1990’s-set Jersey Girl is that Ben Affleck’s talent agent finds it ludicrous that The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is being marketed as the NEXT BIG THING. Of course, we know that by the late 1990s he was exactly that for summer movie market. Each July was dominated by a Will Smith major summer release from 1995-1999. It wasn’t just a studio tentpole movie he gifted us each heatwave, like a short sleeved Santa, but a hit single and franchise starter too. An embodiment of unthreatening urban cool, slick action and sexy wisecracks. A black movie star who combined a softened devolution of the street smart comedy of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy with the natural action athleticism of, say, a Wesley Snipes – yet already keyed into an entire generation as a recognisable, accessible and aspirational youth presence.
Then 1999 happened…
Wild Wild West (1999)
Barry Sonnenfeld directs Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Salma Hayek in this steampunk western where two cowboys turn spies to take down a former Confederate death machine maker.
No-one’s gold run lasts forever. Every star has their Hudson Hawk or Last Action Hero. This is pretty dire. Tarnished Smith’s shining glow in such a way that never truly reignited, the notorious Wicky-Wah-Wah doesn’t even have a cult following two decades later. Sure, there have been Smith headlined mega hits since but this is the flop that suggested not just his picking instinct were off (he chose this over The Matrix) but that his’ trademark harmless swagger couldn’t save a bad script and a wayward production. Reuniting with his Men in Black director for a similarly formatted wrinkle on the cowboy film isn’t the worst idea in the world, though not exactly what his target audience was begging for. There is the recipe for the same mismatched buddy comedy, outlandish gags, outlandish FX and outlandish production values that made that 1997 hit a monster. Room for a rap song where Smith can run us through the plot to a catchy sampled beat too. The song is the best thing about this. He has no chemistry with Kline. The jokes are often horrid clunking jibes about slavery and disability (the villain is “a cripple”). The FX are solid for their time but the wobbly plot is subservient to them. As good as it looks, it has a very consistently shit brown palette for the poor background artists to be stuck playing in. Colourful aliens are replaced with rust, mud and shanty shacks. It is like a big, formless poop in pretty much every definition. Salma Hayek is given little to do but looks fabulous. As always, she can’t rescue a bad film… you kinda hoped Will Smith might though. This was the recall product that took away his A-List stability. I know it is more a sci-fi fantasy created with toys and lunchboxes in mind but on stinking release this still manages to become the second highest grossing Western ever. If this car crash with all its marketable strengths can manage that dubious accolade maybe a more sensible star would have shied away from the dead genre. See also: steampunk. I love both cinematic settings but mashing together two flavours that haven’t been popular with the masses probably wasn’t a wise career move for Will. This doesn’t feel like a creative gamble, just a hubristic failure.
I Am Legend (2007)
Francis Lawrence directs Will Smith, Dash Mihok and Alice Braga in this sci-fi thriller where a lone man navigates an evacuated New York, trying to find a cure for the plague that has turned the population into daylight fearing vampires.
Smith spent the next decade playing things safer with sequels and dramatic acting gigs. He used his cache to make strong prestige projects like the excellent Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness and refound his box office mojo with middling, unchallenging, on brand production like I,Robot and Hitch. I Am Legend seemed to be his first legitimate swing at a record breaking Number One again. A project that had been worked up for Arnie and Ridley Scott (the line “I’ll be back” still makes the final cut – was it put in to fulfil the wants of Schwarzeneger’s fans maybe twenty drafts earlier?) but finally found a home with Smith. On release, it felt like a big hitter… the event of 2007. Sold on imagery of Smith surviving in an abandoned New York – it promised post-9/11 spectacle, intense action and a more mature, physical Smith – front and centre. And for an hour this risky, unusual blockbuster really delivers. Smith doesn’t have Hanks or DiCaprio’s acting talent. Yet staying within tighter emotional parameters he sells the isolation and desperation just as well as their lauded solo turns in Castaway or The Revenant respectively. Smith has excellent chemistry with his co-star – a game German Shepherd. Both Manhattan as an eerie ghost town and the flashbacks to the evacuation of New York make for powerful imagery… this is a gritty, compelling fantasy unlike any other onscreen. I Am Legend does fall apart in the final act… the infected are revealed and they a CGI freak show of uncanny polygons. About as scary as a kill screen on a N64. This FX choice really lets the experience down. I felt a rush of disappointment in the multiplex on opening night. I felt it again on this revisit. The pain of finding one fatal flaw to an otherwise brilliant film. One note of optimism… the monster effects still stink the room out but knowing they were coming in the post meant I could enjoy all that was great about I Am Legend more on a second watch. The shock of how bad a visual decision they were was softened with grim expectation, leaving not quite such a residing bad taste. Who knows on a third or fourth revisit a few decades future hence, I might discount the travesty of the creature design with an “of their time” pardon?
Peter Berg directs Will Smith, Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron in this alcoholic superhero action comedy.
What if the world’s only superhero was a clumsy, drunk, destructive, anti-social loser? We’ve moved on a fair bit in the superhero genre’s lifecycle since Hancock was released a decade ago. I doubt we’ll see many original cape wearing protagonists front their own launch, even if the intention is mildly lampooning the tropes. Hancock is the epitome of a one-watcher, a series of trailer moments and enjoyable set pieces that doesn’t hang together as a fulfilling movie experience. Smith struggles in anti-hero mode. His strengths are suavity, quips and purpose. This script plays to none of those and he flounders outside his range. There’s a halfway point twisty-twist that halts the fun, adds a mythology that isn’t given anywhere near enough space to make any real impact and then is neutered by a finale that comes out of nowhere and stinks of hasty reshoot. The stinkiest of stinks. It can be daft fun but as with its protagonist Hancock never really knows what it is and makes a lot of noise trying to figure that out. This was the end of Smith’s time as a box office guarantee – the film was a financial success but Smith took a break from such projects and the demand for him to top line was no longer there when he returned in 2012.
Seven Pounds (2008)
Gabriele Muccino directs Will Smith, Rosario Dawson and Woody Harrelson in this drama where a man poses as a tax inspector to investigate the lives of the fatally ill trying to find deserving candidates.
Like Hancock, this is a project that feels very much outside the Will Smith wheelhouse. Smith’s Ben Thomas is presented as untrustworthy, rude and his motivations are ill-defined. Not exactly what you want from a story sold only on an image of the superstar’s impassive face and a cryptic title. The partnership with Muccino hit gold with The Pursuit of Happyness – a film where we saw the perennial winner struggle and strive in the real world. Here the predictable turns and gloopy emotion comes across as mawkish and saccharine rather than hard hitting and inspirational. The stakes are still life and death but the texture of reality is missing. Smith doesn’t have the chops to sell an unlikeable character. There is a sweet, tragic romance that dominates the middle act and Muccino sure makes a lovely looking weepie but this is ultimately a manipulative film, hard to recommend.
Gemini Man (2019)
Ang Lee directs Will Smith, Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in this sci-fi thriller where a retiring hitman finds himself pursued by a younger clone of himself.
A script that has been stuck in development hell since the time of Face/Off and Double Impact. You can tell it was intended for a Clint Eastwood but the technology wasn’t there. The scene where Smith badgers Winstead then asks her out is classic Clint chat. All other personality has been drained out over years and years and years of rewrites. The film feels dated, flat and purposeless. Allegedly if you watch it in specific theatres the action comes to life due to the higher frame rate. I struggle to see how much of an improvement that will be and in three weeks from now that shan’t be an option anyway. So let’s access Gemini Man as a Will Smith vehicle. His worst since Wild, Wild West. The young Will Smith de-aging only works 50% of the time – the most offensively uncanny scene is the bungled epilogue. Ending a film with a shaky effect framed in real light and the real world punctuates a ‘meh’ experience on a particularly sour note. Let’s say they did manage to consistently achieve a young Will Smith on screen though. The script does nothing particularly noteworthy with the concept. Looper covered this ground with more invention and ballsy verve way, way back. Our young Will Smith isn’t like the Will Smith of Bad Boys or Independence Day so there no thrilling nostalgia. He has no Big Willy Energy… he’s a drip, in all honesty. Our old Will Smith has no cheeky nod to his past glories so it isn’t a legacy celebration of a blockbuster career. Let the support cast be Martin Lawrence, Jeff Goldblum… and hell, even Kevin Kline! That to me is where the joy would be, how the project might revive Smith’s career rather than act as a maudlin footnote. One good bike chase mainly seen in the trailer and a dependable turn from Winstead. I snoozed for 10 minutes and missed nothing.