Corrections & clarifications: An earlier version of this report mischaracterized the outcome of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight championship fight with Sonny Liston. Ali won but was later stripped of the title when he refused to be drafted into the military.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has long been a reigning king of Hollywood.
Unless you’ve been all about him since the early days of Big Willie Style, it might be hard to think of Will Smith, still one of the world’s biggest movie stars, as a rapper and sitcom actor. The Philadelphia native has come a long way in the last 30 years and now, one of his signature roles is celebrating a significant birthday.
The original “Bad Boys” turns 25 on Tuesday and it’s the action-comedy that first teamed up Smith, 51, and Martin Lawrence, 54, as Miami cops and lifelong buds who are all about trash-talking and saving the day. Earlier this year, the third installment “Bad Boys for Life” brought the duo back together for old-age jokes and new crimes to solve.
Smith’s done everything from sci-fi invasion films and buddy action comedies to tear-jerking biopics and schmaltzy Christmas movies in his long career – sometimes with a catchy hip-hop tune he sings in the closing credits. Here’s how the “Bad Boys” trilogy ranks among his best and worst films, starting with the bad:
10. ‘Hancock’ (2008)
During a summer of big superhero flicks (“The Dark Knight,” “Iron Man”) the weakest was also the most original. Smith is a superhero who drinks and wrecks stuff in bombastic fashion and agrees to get some help from a PR guy (Jason Bateman), yet the back half of the convoluted plot fumbles a potentially interesting mythology involving ancient immortals.
9. ‘Bad Boys II’ (2003)
This action-packed dud proves bigger doesn’t equate to better. Smith and Martin Lawrence’s lawmen Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett tackle Russian gangsters, Cuban drug lords, the Ku Klux Klan and bro code when it comes to dating your partner’s sister, all without the charm of the 1995 original.
8. ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’ (2000)
The predictable and emotionally manipulative golf drama was pummeled for using the trope of a “magical” black character. In this case, Smith plays the title caddie who pops up out of nowhere to advise an alcoholic World War I vet (Matt Damon) needing to get his game back in order to save the family fortune of his estranged girlfriend (Charlize Theron).
7. ‘Gemini Man’ (2019)
There’s plenty of Smith but not much else in this far-fetched sci-fi thriller. Henry Brogan (Smith) tries to retire from his gig as a government assassin and his bosses send his 23-year-old clone Junior (also Smith, via performance capture) to kill him. It’s interesting to see the moments where those two come together, but they’re few and far between, considering the humdrum plot and iffy special effects.
6. ‘Men in Black II’ (2002)
Smith spends quite a bit of screen time with a talking pug in a suit in this forgettable sequel to the refreshing first “MIB.” There’s a bevy of aliens, if you dig that sort of thing, but the action and gags just aren’t up to snuff, the plot involving space princesses, shapeshifters and the Statue of Liberty is a mess, and a Johnny Knoxville with two heads is not better than one.
5. ‘After Earth’ (2013)
M. Night Shyamalan co-wrote and directed this piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi twistiness starring Smith and his son Jaden. But, really, it’s just a vanity project where they get to play father and son in futuristic space, dealing with aliens and various other dangers when they crash-land back on Earth centuries after we’ve left the place.
4. ‘Winter’s Tale’ (2014)
You can’t blame Smith for all the romantic fairy-tale cheesiness in this tale of guardian angels, miracles, spiritual destinies and love across centuries. But he does his over-the-top part as Lucifer – yep, that devilish one – a guy with a weirdly deep voice and an impressive set of chompers who orders around demonic gangster Russell Crowe.
3. ‘Shark Tale’ (2004)
The animated comedy offers a stellar voiceover cast (Angelina Jolie! Renee Zellweger! Martin Scorsese!) and a fishy premise for a kids’ film: Parents, get ready to explain death and what it means to “wack” someone after watching the story of an undersea dude (Smith) who takes credit when the son of a shark mob boss (Robert De Niro) is killed and befriends the great white don’s vegetarian kid (Jack Black).
2. ‘Collateral Beauty’ (2016)
In the wannabe holiday classic that aims for Christmas mushiness and instead leans unseasonably cynical, Smith plays a grieving father and ad executive who cathartically writes letters to Love, Time and Death. He’s reasonably watchable but not much else is in a terrible tweak on the “Christmas Carol” template.
1. ‘Wild Wild West’ (1999)
This horrendous gunslinging misfire arrived at the height of Smith’s Hollywood reign. The action-comedy adaptation of the 1960s TV Western wastes Smith and Kevin Kline as a couple of Secret Service lawmen protecting Ulysses Grant from some crazy Confederates, and not even evil Kenneth Branagh in a mechanical spider can save the day.
Now on to the hotness:
10. ‘Enemy of the State’ (1998)
Maybe the most relevant movie now among Jerry Bruckheimer’s enjoyably bombastic ’90s action flicks, “Enemy” centers on surveillance states and government cover-ups in the story of a labor lawyer (Smith) who has his entire life torn asunder when videotape of a murdered journalist winds up in his possession. Help comes from an ex-intelligence operative (Gene Hackman) just as crafty as the bad guys.
9. ‘Spies in Disguise‘ (2019)
Smith’s smooth voice is right on for a too-cool superspy, so it’s a hoot to hear him absolutely freak out when his character Lance Sterling is transformed into a real birdbrain. “Spies” uses Smith and Holland well and is a surprisingly good affair with an interesting and relevant message for youngsters: While macho Lance is a fan of blowing people up and asking questions later, Holland’s pacifist Walter shows him that non-violent problem-solving works, too.
8. ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (1993)
Smith was just a TV star making his Hollywood debut in the dramedy about a young grifter who cons his way into the household of a wealthy New York couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) by saying he was just robbed and pretending he’s Sidney Poitier’s son. The film follows his various chicanery and in the process showcases the beginnings of Smith’s undeniable charm as a leading man.
7. ‘Bad Boys for Life‘ (2020)
Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Apparently make the rare good third franchise film! The action extravaganza is both homage to the ’90s original and an unexpectedly deep return to all-star form for Smith and Lawrence’s cop duo, who have to deal with a mysterious assassin gunning for one of them but more importantly figure out their own internal issues when it comes to family and mortality. Don’t worry, though, plenty of stuff explodes.
6. ‘Ali’ (2001)
Smith earned his first Oscar nomination for floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee in the Muhammad Ali biopic. The film follows the iconic boxer’s life from winning the title from Sonny Liston to having it stripped when Ali refused service in Vietnam to getting it back vs. George Foreman. The performance is slightly better than the movie: Smith nails both the emotional and physical aspects of Ali’s life inside the ring and outside dealing with racial issues.
5. ‘I Am Legend’ (2007)
The big-budget adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic post-apocalyptic novel brought together Smith’s thespian and blockbuster sides (as well as his dog-loving one!) playing a scientist who’s the last man standing in New York City after a deadly virus wipes everyone out. Sure, there are vampire-y creatures for him to fight, but Smith brings needed gravitas and solemnity along with the brawn.
4. ‘Men in Black’ (1997)
Buddy comedies are often best with extremes, and that’s what you get when you stick Smith’s cocky young rookie learning the ins and outs of alien wonders with Tommy Lee Jones’ grumpy old veteran. Everything works, from the super-fun details of the secretive MIB organization to Vincent D’Onofrio as an extraterrestrial bug in an ill-fitting human suit.
3. ‘Bad Boys’ (1995)
Team-ups have been a running theme in Smith’s career, though arguably the best one is this excellent action comedy from Michael Bay’s pre-“Transformers” days. You can’t beat the yin of Smith’s ladies’ man Mike playing off the yang of Lawrence’s family dude Marcus, who switch personalities to save Tea Leoni from a French drug kingpin and his hit squad.
2. ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ (2006)
Instead of “After Earth,” check out a film with Smith and his son Jaden that’s actually good: The uplifting biopic centers on Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman and dad trying to create a life and home for him and his young son, as he fights his way up the company ladder as a stockbroker. The elder Smith snagged his second Oscar nod for a performance that’ll give you quite a few feels.
1. ‘Independence Day’ (1996)
Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi disaster film scores so many points: alien invaders destroying the White House in epic fashion, Jeff Goldblum going full Goldblum, etc. It’s Smith, though, who makes it truly fabulous as a heroic fighter pilot with tons of bravado (and a hint of vulnerability) who wants to make it back to his family – and punch a few extraterrestrials in the face along the way.