Will Smith’s Movie Career, Ranked

From Wild Wild West to Independence Day.

Will Smith is the biggest movie star of a generation. Philadelphians, myself included, won’t let the world forget that Smith, Philly’s own ultra-celebrity, grew up at the end of SEPTA’s R5 line. He’s made albums and starred in television shows and helped to launch the careers of his children. He even started a production company named after his old neighborhood, Overbrook. At the beginning of the summer of 2012, Smith returned to the big screen for a third installment of the Men in Black franchise. He spent a portion of the season filming locally for the upcoming M. Night Shyamalan film After Earth, which also stars Smith’s son Jaden. Smith’s return revitalized discussion about his box office prowess and acting chops. So, I set out to rank every feature film Smith has ever starred in. And yes, Wild Wild West is the worst.

18. Wild Wild West (1999)
Worldwide Gross: $202,104,681
IMDB Ranking: 4.5
Aliens? Nope

But it does have that mechanical spider thing. It’s hard to imagine that a film career built on action films could miss as incredibly as Smith’s did with Wild Wild West. But, really, the film is an abomination. It’s an ill-advised TV-to-theater reboot with a group of writers that patched a script together like they were making a fucking quilt. The real problem, though, is that it still managed to make the studio $52 million in profit. It reinforced the idea that shitty movies with aliens and explosions are worth more than shitty films without aliens and explosions.

17. The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
Worldwide Gross: $35,459,427
IMDB Ranking: 6.5
Aliens? Nope

In 2012, this movie could never happen. It’s directed by Robert Redford and stars Smith, Matt Damon, and Charlize Theron. Their salaries alone would already push the limits of the film’s $80 million budget. In 2000, Smith was still only experimenting with films that didn’t involve aliens, Matt Damon hadn’t been properly branded yet, and Theron was only two years removed from Disney’s Mighty Joe Young. The nature of the period piece forced Smith to abandon his typical lingo for a dated version of the English language that feels awkward and forced.

16. Shark Tale (2004)
Worldwide Gross: $367,275,019
IMDB Ranking: 5.9
Aliens? Nope

As far as computer-animated films go, this one’s a bust. It lacks the personality of a Pixar film and the wit of the Shrek series. Even the main character’s name, Oscar “The Shark Slayer,” is pretty boring. Angelina Jolie voices the female lead in mail-it-in fashion, and there are few laughs to be had outside of what’s shown in the trailer. I’d rather watch Finding Nemo 250 more times before trying Shark Tale again.

15. Hitch (2005)
Worldwide Gross: $368,100,420
IMDB Ranking: 6.7
Aliens? Nope

I know people who find this film incredibly entertaining. I’m not among them. It’s as if director Andy Tennant locked Will Smith and Kevin James in a room until they signed a blood oath to overact each other to death. Some of the physical comedy is truly brutal, and Eva Mendes is forgettable, which is an impressive feat for someone who looks the way she does. I’m a romantic comedy connoisseur (admittedly not my most masculine trait). I’ve watched everything from Woody Allen classics to the unheard-of dregs that populate the nooks and crannies of Netflix (I’m looking at you, TiMER). Hitch leaves much to be desired.

14. Hancock (2008)
Worldwide Gross: $624,386,746
IMDB Ranking: 6.5
Aliens? Nope

The first half of this film is surprisingly engrossing and incredibly interesting. The way it was marketed led audiences astray. Sometimes this is effective (like in Funny People when Judd Apatow got people to think they were paying to see a raunchy comedy and then trapped them in the final act of a Tennessee Williams play). It’s not so effective, though, when audiences think they are going to see a Will Smith movie—one about a super hero challenged more by public perception than by kryptonite—and suddenly find themselves trapped in a story about star-crossed lovers destined to be together. The concept—an unpopular super hero in desperate need of a PR makeover—is original and engaging. Plain and simple, the end sucks.

13. Seven Pounds (2008)
Worldwide Gross: $168,168,201
IMDB Ranking: 7.5
Aliens? You wish

This film is a bit heavy-handed. Smith’s Tim Thomas sets out on a personal mission to save seven people, though you might not pick up on that until near the end of the film. It was one of a series of Smith films that deviated from the popcorn-flick blueprint. It’s not terrible, but it lacks the sentimentality that makes The Pursuit of Happyness so engaging and, ultimately, makes you wish that someone else had played the lead while the Fresh Prince saved Earth from some horrendous creatures from another planet.

12. Ali (2001)
Worldwide Gross: $87,713,825
IMDB Ranking: 6.6
Aliens? No

Quite frankly, this film doesn’t really work because Smith, as charismatic as he is, just isn’t as awing as the real thing. Muhammad Ali—who will be honored with this year’s Liberty Medal in a ceremony at the Constitution Center next month—was exponentially more interesting. He was more physically impressive and verbally stimulating and carried more bravado in his prime than Smith could pack with the cricket. Remember that footage of Ali after Liston didn’t come back out for the seventh? Smith is great in some roles, and serviceable in others, but he doesn’t come close to that kind of energy. That’s probably more of a commentary on Ali than it is on Smith’s acting chops.

11. I, Robot (2004)
Worldwide Gross: $347,234,916
IMDB Ranking: 7.0
Aliens? Agh, just robots

Motorcycles! Guns! Technology! “Somehow, ‘I told you so’ doesn’t quite say it.” More technology! This is a typical Smith film built on special effects and action sequences. The one-liners are unimpressive, but the deeper allegory of the inevitability of the demise of mankind at the hands of the machines we create is pretty deep, as far as Smith’s popcorn flicks go.

10. Men in Black II (2002)
Worldwide Gross: $441,818,803
IMDB Ranking: 5.8
Aliens? Yes

You can’t be the biggest movie star on the planet without abiding by Hollywood’s cardinal rule: If a movie is profitable, the story is eternal. So, like every other Will Smith movie ever made that isn’t called Wild Wild West, Men in Black got a sequel. Men in Black II was largely forgettable, save for Will Smith and Biz Markie beatboxing in the post office. Overall, it wasn’t artistically offensive, as far as sequels go. But, that might be because Men in Black isn’t exactly Lawrence of Arabia. Also, Smith’s rap single for this movie sucked.

9. Men in Black III (2012)
Worldwide Gross: $621,568,042
IMDB Ranking: 7.2
Aliens? Of course

Basically, the same action flick you’ve seen a million times, but this time they’ve changed some of the one-liners and brought in Josh Brolin. If you’re cool with reinforcing Hollywood’s idea that no idea is dead until it stops making money, then you probably enjoyed the hell out of this film.

8. Bad Boys (1995)
Worldwide Gross: $141,407,024
IMDB Ranking: 6.7
Aliens? Nope

Holy shit, do you remember when Martin Lawrence was relevant and Michael Bay didn’t suck? Now, Bay is probably story-boarding Transformers 34: Revenge of the Rising Zombie-Robots and Lawrence can’t star in a movie that doesn’t require him to dress up as a fat woman. But, back in ’95, they teamed with Will Smith to make a movie that’s required reading for action fans. It gives you the explosions and the snarky buddy cop banter you’re looking for. And some skittles.

7. I Am Legend (2007)
Worldwide Gross: $585,349,010
IMDB Ranking: 7.1
Aliens? No, they’re vampires

I saw I Am Legend at a midnight premiere while I was a student at Penn State. A huge group of the football team was directly in front of us, which meant that the theater was oddly full for a Thursday night during the last week of class, and the anticipation in the theater was palpable, probably because Smith hadn’t done a legitimate fast-paced film in three years. That marked the longest gap between action films through that point in his career. And damn, was that scene with the dog brutal, or what? I think I called home and asked to talk to my pups everyday for at least a week after seeing this.

6. Bad Boys II (2003)
Worldwide Gross: $273,339,556
IMDB Ranking: 6.5
Aliens? Nope

For whatever reason, this film seems to hold up more than a lot of his others. Of all the action fodder and buddy cop diarrhea Hollywood as excreted into theaters over the past half century, it doesn’t make sense that a second installment of Bad Boys would resonate, but it does. Johnny Tapia is one of the more memorable antagonists from a Smith film. The scene where Martin Lawrence takes the ecstasy, the scene when Smith and Lawrence have a seemingly sexually-charged couple’s moment that’s broadcast in the electronic store, and the Dan Marino cameo are all more entertaining than you’d initially imagine. If Lawrence’s bullshit, new-leaf, “goooosefrabah” schtick wasn’t so contrived and forced, this would rank among Smith’s most effective films sequels.

5. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Worldwide Gross: $307,077,295
IMDB Ranking: 7.8
Aliens? Negative

This movie can be summarized in a word: Awwwwww. Seriously, there aren’t enough “w’s” in the screenplay for the Grinch that you could add to the grammatically correct version of “aw” to properly articulate the emotions evoked by this film. It’s Jaden’s first major role. It’s the closest Will Smith will ever come to challenging himself since he vanquished his first alien back in ’96. It’s cheap, but it’s dramatic and inspiring and heartwarming. It’s a little cheesy, but it also serves as definitive proof that cheese and quality aren’t mutually exclusive.

4. Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
Worldwide Gross: $6,405,918
IMDB Ranking: 6.9
Aliens? No

Smith’s first starring role may be the farthest he’ll ever stray from the script he’s written for himself. The film centers on Manhattan’s upper crust—no aliens or robots—as Smith’s Paul, a conman, weaves in and out of their lives. This film is worth your time if only to see Smith dissect Salinger, analyze the conclusion of a popular absurdist play, and reference Star Wars and Lord of the Rings while arguing the evolution of the meaning of “imagination.”

“It is the worst kind of yellowness to be so scared of yourself that you put blindfolds on rather than deal with yourself. To face ourselves, that’s the hard thing. The imagination, that’s God’s gift, to make the act of self-examination bearable.”

3. Enemy of the State (1998)
Worldwide Gross: $250,649,836
IMDB Ranking: 7.2
Aliens? Nope

Enemy of the State is exactly what action thrillers should be. It’s not impressively intellectual, but it doesn’t need to be because you’re distracted by women who work at lingerie shops, car chases, and Will Smith jumping from balcony to balcony on a highrise in his skivvies. There are enough twists and turns to keep you thinking and the action pulls you in, but isn’t overdone. Though, that’s not a surprise in a film that features Gene Hackman and Jon Voight, and had Tony Scott at the helm. This film is a perfect example of why audiences will sorely miss the late director.

2. Men in Black (1997)
Worldwide Gross: $589,390,539
IMDB Ranking: 7.1
Aliens? Um, duh

Independence Day exploded and Smith, basically, went, “Oh, shit. You guys like aliens, explosions and one-liners? I’ll give you aliens, explosions and one-liners.” Plus the buddy-cop element. With suits! It’s entertaining and, in 1997, the special effects impressed. The cross-promotion with the catchy single didn’t hurt. It was recently featured on one of the premium channels, and I caught the second half for the first time in a few years. I couldn’t turn it off once the alien turned the redneck’s body into a surrogate and started limping around the city.

1. Independence Day (1996)
Worldwide Gross: $816,400,891
IMDB Ranking: 6.8
Aliens? Yes

Independence Day is the pillar of Will Smith’s career. He’s an engaging, charismatic, talented screen actor, but his success teeters on aliens and explosions punctuated by a delicately placed profanity and a kiss at the curtains. Independence Day was the beginning and end of his career arc. His first major action role grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide, so Smith has doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on the idea that the box office audience loves them some aliens, explosions and one-liners.