Will Smith Special

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, 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 be 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 flavour 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.

3

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 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?

8

Hancock (2008)

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.

6

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.

5

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.

3

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Movie of the Week: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Don Chaffey directs Todd Armstrong, Honor Blackman and Nancy Kovack in this fantasy adventure where an exiled prince begins a quest across creation with the help of the Greek gods.

The stuff that dreams are made of. Expansive epic storytelling and groundbreaking Harryhausen effects. Everyone remembers The Children of Hydra’s Teeth – a finale so show stopping the film literally shuts down immediately after it, loose ends flapping in the wind and all. Yet I really was drawn to Talos, the gargantuan statue who comes to life and terrorises the crew as a pissed off 80 foot security guard. He patrols so patiently and destructively you are kinda sorry to see his weakness exploited. Top tea time thrills.

9

Kika (1993)

Pedro Almodóvar directs Verónica Forqué, Rossy de Palma and Victoria Abril in this farce where a sweet, naive make-up artist finds herself desired by nearly every man who sees her.

I think this is the first Almodóvar I saw as a teen, I found it annoying and often incomprehensible. The sex comedy is both distastefully brash and laugh light. And then there’s the protracted rape played for laughs at its centre. Kika has dated very poorly, some game pantomime acting and outlandish Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes are all that is now of note.

4

The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Terence Davies directs Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale in this adaptation of a Terrence Rattigan play where a lady leaves her titled husband to live with a selfish younger man.

Golden to look at and well acted. Yet the coldly written characters struggle to convince and the chopped up timeline is a distraction rather than a boon.

6

Joker (2019)

Todd Phillips directs Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy and Robert DeNiro in this comic book origin story for the clown prince of crime; positioning him as a mentally fragile innocent corrupted by urban malaise.

Come watch the dancing sad man become a glancing madman. Clearly one of the year’s biggest releases, not just in box office take but in that everyone currently has an opinion on it. It left me cold. A lot of craft has gone into visually gift wrapping the iconography of The Joker with the cinematic language of an early Scorsese. Phillips has produced a convincing looking pastiche of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy and After Hours. All superior films but why not steal from the best? This is New York as a hostile environment, where dirty colour is a lure to a predatory trap and the only condolence shown to others is not to be openly, wantonly cruel. Nihilistic, bleak, sleazy. But in a borrowed way. This isn’t real world isolation and madness… this is a brutal celebration of proactive pessimism. Misery parody. Popcorn desolation. Do I – a grumpy, hard thinking, Bukowski reading, The Wire-loving, humanity distrusting man- care that this is all so unrelentingly dark? No. Does seeing a mass market descent into Dostoevsky fan art appeal? Not really. This is ennui as window dressing, hell as a marketing tool. It doesn’t intellectually convince, nor say anything deeper than “People Ain’t No Good”. Nick Cave did that, he has a compelling naturally stiff baritone. You can’t fake that sadness and make it an event. It didn’t work for me, didn’t emotionally convince. I got bored wallowing in the artifice. You know where this purposeful train wreck is headed from the first 15 minutes and it never derails or deviates from that course. Yes I saw that twist coming and… yeah… that twist too. The child abuse stuff, less so. Surprise child abuse as a narrative garnish… yum! Phillips isn’t a disruptive visionary, he’s a hack wearing the trappings of a great. He couldn’t make War Dogs into a New Goodfellas, he couldn’t make Due Date into a Nu-Midnight Run. His best film is Old School. Old School still rocks the cock. Now if Scorsese made a Joker film I’d be all fucking eyes. But the director of Road Trip pretending to be Marty… I’ll keep my reservations, they feel pretty firmly founded. That’s not to say this is a bad film, just not the controversial masterpiece we are supposed to be worshipping. Phoenix goes all in. He has no other setting. I love him for this. His twisted soul is all sinew and jerking dead eyed outbursts. I liked it. I liked the self contained terror of him dropping his gun in the children’s hospital. I liked the couple of bigger, blockbuster-y moments that seemed to suggest he had transcended the chaos of this hateful city and could glide between the violence like a savant walking between the raindrops. That’s a nice take on the Joker. I enjoyed that. The impressive support cast is solid. Joker looks and sounds superb. I’d watch it again. But a masterpiece? A classic? Nah… this is World Book Day fancy dress up for a school shooter who’ll never have the nerve. About as emotionally true and cinematically daring as a nerf bullet in a Happy Meal. I’ll get my misanthropy from the geeks and losers, bums and burnouts, thank you very much. It really doesn’t belong on 1000 seater IMAX screens.

6

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Desmond Davis directs Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker and Laurence Olivier in this fantasy adventure where the Greek Gods watch Perseus track down Medusa to stop the Kraken from devouring his paramour.

Like Star Wars or Flash Gordon, this was a mainstay of my Hanwell childhood. A VHS perennial that exists better in my memory than as a revisit. What this viewing was missing was the shit brown corduroy sofa that stiffly sat in my parents’ first house, an orange Club bar wrapped in foil. It is very slow, in no rush to start the action. 40 minutes of dawdling set-up. Which is a shame as the eventual creature design is excellent and abundant. The plot essentially (after a lot of humming and ha-ing) is a join the dots exercise, the dots being another new hideous beast to meet and survive. Calibos is a brutal warped devil. His pitiful expressions and snarling anger, his pathetic lust and domineering control. I forgot what a petulantly effective villain he was… they should have seeded him throughout the narrative more. The blind Stygian Witches are played for laughs but their cannibal cauldron and all seeing crystal were formative movie horror imagery for young Bob Carroll. Medusa is a top tier fearful foe, that Harryhausen claymation reaching its evil pinnacle. The unsettling rattle of her tail, the glowing radioactive green of her eyes. Perseus entering her lair is one of the finest protracted suspense sequences ever committed to screen. It makes up for all the first act hamming and exposition. She is a devastating threat and we are on her home turf surrounded by the statues of fallen heroes who thought they could slay her. Massive scorpions. Race on Pegasus to beat the Kraken. Medusa’s horrifying final gaze. Green lasers bursting out at us. Titans is creaky, dated and wobbly. The acting is wooden and non-committal. It cannot hold a candle to predecessor Jason and the Argonauts. Yet it is embedded deep in my blockbuster primordial ooze. A yardstick from which all summer releases are measured.

7

Plein Soleil (1960)

René Clément directs Alain Delon, Marie Laforêt and Maurice Ronet in this early adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s identity thief thriller: The Talented Mr Ripley.

The best version of this crime classic in that the identity theft actually convinces here. There are hectic set pieces as Ripley evades the authorities and reality through boat and rooftop. And the final reveal is delightfully Hitchcockian. The Italian location work is second to none, we’d all kill for this La Dolce Vita.

9

The Kitchen (2019)

Andrea Berloff directs Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss in this crime thriller where three housewives take on the protection rackets in Hell’s Kitchen of the early Eighties.

There’s a better film struggling to get out here. You see it peeking through the often trite and short-sighted storytelling choices. On the poorer side, we have a fantasy New York where business owners seemingly want to pay extortion with smiles on their faces, where a well concealed twist then has no further consequences and it all builds to quite the anti-climax where girl power somehow supersedes betrayal and violence. On the plus side though, Domnhall Gleeson makes for a very unusual object of attraction, Bill Camp has fun as a pragmatic mob boss and the colourful visual framing perfectly captures the feel of a 4 issue Vertigo comic book run. I read a Sight and Sound review that said this was ‘incomprehensible’ but then revealed various misinterpretations of the plot that showed the writer hadn’t given the film their full attention. It really isn’t as bad as the critics make out, but equally not strong enough an entertainment to die on a hill for.

5

100 Rifles (1969)

Tom Gries directs Raquel Welch, Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds in this western where a voluptuous Mexican freedom fighter distracts a bandit and his arresting officer from getting back across the border.

A lot of this is dull filler tosh but there are spikes of interest. Welch takes a wet t-shirt shower by a railway siding. The black lead gets the girl. A raid on a train has true epic sweep. A celebration in a fort turns into unbridled carnage – this throwaway scene has a really, really strange Manson-esque / Season of the Witch carnality. Also of note… producer Marvin Schwarz… The inspiration behind Tarantino’s 1969 Western making, mover and shaker in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?

5

The Wandering Earth (2019)

Frant Gwo directs Qu Chuxaio, Angel Zhao and Ng Man-Tat in this sci-fi epic where to save the Earth from a dying sun, humanity has moved underground and the planet has turned into an organic rocket ship propelling itself to a new solar system.

This is one of the most financially successful releases of the year at the global box office, 98% of that haul coming from China. In essence it is an ensemble global apocalypse disaster epic. Like Michael Bay or Rolland Emmerich used to make two decades ago, a mixed bag of plucky but reluctant survivors try to exploit a flaw to subdue a genocidal scenario. The expansive FX work is good, there’s some decent peril and very broad farce humour. The vision of technology saving humanity is terrifying – I think we are supposed to marvel at the hellscape presented of bunkers of people divided by social caste and an entire planet so raped of her resources she now entirely resembles an inhospitable mining pit. The politics are offensive… one character is referred to as a half breed. This wouldn’t past muster during Independence Day or Armageddon, China has had 20 years to catch-up. They clearly give absolutely zero shits about racism or the environment going by their popular entertainments. Watchable but drags more than a little. The sheer abandonment of scientific logic alone will make your mind boggle.

5