When audiences met Will Smith, he was the Fresh Prince, a likable rapper who, along with partner D.J. Jazzy Jeff, made songs that only irritated parents and reduced Freddy Krueger to a joke long before the movies followed suit. From there, it he made a short jump to TV, where the ever-likable Smith led the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
But from those unlikely beginnings, Will Smith has become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Not only does he excel in a range of genres, including action movies, romance films, and westerns, but he has the presence of an old Hollywood leading man. Even when the rest of the movie lets him down, he still shines, as demonstrated by these 25 best Will Smith movies.
1. Men in Black (1997)
Will Smith has never defined cool more than he did in the mid-90s and Tommy Lee Jones has never not been crotchety. So why would anyone want to put the two together on screen, especially as agents monitoring extra-terrestrial life on Earth? But the always-smooth Smith and the always-crunchy Jones make for an unforgettable pair in Barry Sonnenfeld’s sci-fi comedy Men in Black. Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Ed Solomon, adapting the indie comic The Men in Black by Lowell Cunningham, find the perfect dynamic between the leads, at turns letting them be the smart one and the buffoon, playing to all of Smith’s strengths as a performer.
2. Bad Boys II (2003)
Perhaps the greatest testament to Smith’s persona appears in his ability to look calm and controlled amidst Bayhem. That tranquility makes Bad Boys II the magnum opus of Michael Bay’s career, grounding the mind-bending spectacle in an entertaining character. Even more than in Men in Black, Smith has easy chemistry with Martin Lawrence, electrifying the glossy, over-the-top flick.
3. Ali (2001)
Few things destroy a popular actor like the need to become a serious thespian. So when Smith signed to Ali — playing Muhammad Ali in a film by Michael Mann, no less — moviegoers braced for disappointment. But those concerns disappeared when Ali hit theaters, because (physical differences aside) Smith embodied the cocky and charismatic fighter. Of course, Smith’s training in hip-hop served him well when delivering the boxer’s taunts. But more surprising: Smith found quiet dignity in the icon, earning him an Academy Award nomination.
4. Hitch (2005)
Audiences never knew how good they had it back in the 90s and the 2000s, when they took for granted the mid-budget rom-com that once seemed omnipresent. Now that they have vanished from theatres, we really learn to appreciate films like Hitch, which features Smith as a dating guru who is, in fact, a loser in love. From that premise, and strong co-starring turns from Kevin James, Eva Mendes, and Amber Valletta, director Andy Tennant and writer Kevin Bisch craft a winning comedy that stands among the best in the extinct genre.
5. King Richard (2021)
Will Smith has gunned for Oscar gold since the early 2000s and finally won it with one of his most complex roles in King Richard. The actor marshals all of his magnetism to make viewers pull for Richard Williams, the often prickly father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams (portrayed in the film by Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton). Equally frustrating and inspiring, Richard gives Smith the role he’s always wanted, proof that he’s not just a movie star, but an actual actor.
6. Gemini Man (2019)
Despite Smith in the lead and Ang Lee directing, Gemini Man struggled to make back its budget at the box office, and we can see why. Writers Darren Lemke and David Benioff came up with the idea in the 90s, and the movie sat in pre-production for decades before Lee picked up the script and hired Billy Ray to punch it up. Despite its somewhat dated premise, Gemini Man provides a compelling look at aging and self-doubt, all carried by a double performance from Smith, who plays super-sniper Harry Brogan and his younger clone Junior.
7. Enemy of The State (1998)
Up-and-coming actors often appear alongside established stars to build their credibility and learn from a master. Case in point: Enemy of the State, the paranoid thriller directed by Tony Scott and written by David Marconi. When labor lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Smith) becomes the target of government surveillance, he teams with surveillance expert Brill Lyle (Gene Hackman), who bears more than a little resemblance to Harry Caul of The Conversation. Although Enemy of the State falls far short of the Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, Smith holds his own with Hackman, planting himself among the next generation of stars.
8. I Am Legend (2007)
No one but Will Smith could make I Am Legend work. Sure, both Vincent Price and Charlton Heston played similar roles in The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man, also based on the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend. But only Smith could truly hold the screen while walking through an empty New York City, without overpowering viewers or breaking the reality of the film. Even when director Francis Lawrence, working from a flashy but non-sensical script by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, turns toward the absurd, Smith remains believable in a larger-than-life role.
9. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
After the disappointment of Ali, Smith tried again for Oscar recognition with the sentimental true story The Pursuit of Happyness. Steve Conrad’s screenplay hits all of the emotional high points of rags-to-riches businessman Chris Gardner’s autobiography (co-written by Quincy Troupe), and director Gabriele Muccino does not refrain from tugging heartstrings. But Smith doesn’t slip into bathos, throwing himself into the role of Gardner. The character has a real desperation to his need to succeed and love for his son, which deepens what could be a simple feel-good flick.
10. Focus (2015)
After watching Focus, audiences walked away with two major questions: First, why did it take so long to give Smith a stylish old-school caper like the Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn vehicle Charade? Second, why didn't he sign up to make twelve more of these? Smith stars as con man Nicky Spurgeon, who trains and romances protege Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie). Smith and Robbie sizzle together, and writers and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa give the duo a solid movie in which to frolic, something that can’t be said of their next outing together. Focus didn’t earn Smith any awards, but it did entertain his fans better than most recent films.
11. Independence Day (1996)
Bad Boys may have given Smith a real movie career, but Independence Day made him a superstar. The Roland Emmerich alien-invasion/disaster flick hasn’t improved over time, as the script that he and Dean Devlin wrote lolligags with its flat characters more than people who love the explosions recall. But no part of Independence Day drags when Smith appears on screen, shooting down alien invaders and punching them in the face.
12. Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
Smith already had a few hit singles and seasons of The Fresh Prince under his belt when he starred alongside Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland in Six Degrees of Separation, Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of the Pulitzer-nominated play by John Guare. But his winning portrayal as a con man pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier foretold a future beyond crowd-pleasing genre films. Not only does Smith hold his own against the respected actors, but he gives the movie real energy, breaking its sometimes too-serious tone.
13. Hancock (2008)
Never say that Will Smith doesn’t like a challenge. After spending years building a rapport with his audiences, Smith tested their patience with the superhero movie Hancock. As the titular nigh-omnipotent hero, Smith embraces his undesirable traits, even when Hancock hires public relations expert Ray (Jason Bateman) to rehabilitate his image. Director Peter Berg doesn’t bring much to Hancock’s visuals, but the script by Vy Vincent Ngo and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan lets Smith test his limits as an actor.
14. Made in America (1993)
The first sign of Smith’s rise came in a supporting role in the comedy Made in America, directed by Richard Benjamin and written by Holly Goldberg Sloan. Smith plays Tea Cake, the doting but dumb boyfriend of Zora (Nia Long), who learns that her biological father is a white Texan (Ted Danson) who donated sperm to her mother (Whoopi Goldberg). Smith goes for it in every scene, winning viewers over by goofing off the entire film, steering away from the sometimes sentimental plot.
15. Bad Boys (1995)
For Bad Boys, Smith followed in the footsteps of Bruce Willis, making the jump from TV comedy to action hero. But unlike Willis in Die Hard, Smith didn’t have to do it alone, bringing fellow comedian Martin Lawrence and starring in a Michael Bay flick. The combination works, letting the stars update the buddy cop formula with 90s cool while Bay indulges in his explosive impulses, making for a rollicking good time.
16. Jersey Girl (2004)
Jersey Girl had no chance to succeed. The first Kevin Smith movie outside of the ribald cinematic universe of the director’s breakout films Clerks and Mallrats, Jersey Girl featured Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez right after their high-profile flop Gigli. Despite those odds stacked against it, Jersey Girl works better than its awful predecessor, especially during Will Smith’s extended cameo. Playing himself, Smith gives the public relations agent played by Affleck a pep talk about fatherhood. Sure, it’s sappy, but Smith’s unadulterated charm makes it work.
17. I, Robot (2004)
The movie I, Robot doesn’t adhere to the high-concept science fiction stories in the Isaac Asimov collection by the same name, but that doesn’t undermine its fun action scenes. Written by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman and directed with style by Alex Proyas, I, Robot stars Smith as a machine-hating detective whose prejudices turn out to be correct when he battles hordes of androids. Despite its lack of sophistication, I, Robot remains a fun romp, with Smith at his action-hero best.
18. Bad Boys for Life (2020)
The long belated sequel to Bad Boys II, Bad Boys for Life could have been a disaster when it lost Michael Bay as director. Catching up with Mike and Marcus long after their prime also posed a risk, given the spotty record of long-delayed sequels. Rather than ignore the changes in the actors’ lives, directors Adil & Bilall embrace them. The script by Chris Bremmer, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan finds the super cops having very different responses to their fading youth and considering their legacy, adding a welcome bit of depth to a satisfying old-school action flick.
19. Where the Day Takes You (1992)
Although he made his fortune with breezy crowd pleasers, Smith made his theatrical debut in the type of heavy issue movie that he would make later in his career. Directed by Marc Rocco, who co-wrote the script with Michael Hitchcock and Kurt Voss, Where the Day Takes You never apologizes for its urban melodramatics, letting stars Dermot Mulroney, Sean Astin, and Lara Flynn Boyle give impassioned speeches about their struggles. Between all the histrionics, there’s little room for Smith, but he makes the most of his screentime as wounded kid Manny.
20. Men in Black 3 (2012)
No one could deny the power of the first Men in Black, but the lackluster sequel Men in Black II sunk any demand for the further adventures of J and K. Fortunately, we got one more shot at seeing the agents in action, before turning the suits and sunglasses over for the dismal Men in Black: International. The time travel adventure teams Smith’s J with Josh Brolin as the younger version of Jones’s K, but the two quickly establish their own rapport. Returning director Barry Sonnenfeld gets a bit too cartoony at times and Etan Cohen’s script fails to take advantage of the franchise’s cosmic premise, but Smith has fun donning the shades once again.
21. Aladdin (2019)
To be clear, the live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin exists only to earn the studio more money, an empty rehashing of the excellent 1992 animated film. But one of the movie's few creative decisions comes in the form of casting Will Smith in the Genie role. Smith has a very different energy than motormouth Robin Williams, who originated the part. But that difference allows Smith to make the role his own, providing one of the few bright points in an otherwise cynical film.
22. Suicide Squad (2016)
Suicide Squad has many problems, but none of them involve Will Smith. As the irrepressible and deadly super-assassin Deadshot, Smith brings a lightness to the dour film by David Ayer, letting his personal allure disrupt the movie’s march toward gloom. Even when saddled with a treacly single dad subplot, Smith has the temerity to suggest that maybe, just maybe, superhero movies can be fun.
23. Collateral Beauty (2016)
Okay, yes. Collateral Beauty has a ridiculous plot and a smug tone of self-affirmation. But the very fact that it went to theaters instead of a cable channel made for grandparents speaks to the power of its cast. A murderer’s row of dependable talent fills in the gaps in David Frankel’s direction and Allan Loeb’s script, including Edward Norton, Michael Peña, and Naomie Harris. Even among those stars, Smith stands out, breathing soul into a depressed executive, making audiences believe that he is the sort of guy who inspires his friends to go to extraordinary lengths to save him.
24. Concussion (2015)
Too often throughout his career, Smith has made the mistake of equating seriousness with a lack of charisma, turning off his charm to match the weight of the subject matter. Smith certainly makes this error at several points in Concussion, meandering through scenes with a dazed expression that communicates nothing of substance. But when righteous anger overtakes his character, real-life physician Bennet Omalu, Concussion comes to life. Writer and director Peter Landesman doesn’t balance the performance as much as he should, but there’s no denying the power of Smith’s best scenes.
25. Emancipation (2022) will smith movies
Between its debut on Apple TV+ and the lingering fallout of Smith’s actions during the Academy Awards, the historical action thriller Emancipation went ignored by most critics. Those who did check it out didn’t love what they found, an Antoine Fuqua-directed film that struggles to balance its deadly serious subject matter, the true story of an enslaved man escaping hunters in 1860 Louisiana, with its action movie trappings. When emphasizing the former, the movie falters, but it sings when embracing the latter, calling upon Smith’s skills as a screen hero.