Will Smith is, without a doubt, a charming, likable, A-list movie star. How did he achieve his status as Mr. July? By making safe choices. When has a Will Smith movie ever ruffled some feathers? How about push some boundaries? Or, better yet, how many auteur filmmakers has the actor worked for? One being Michael Mann, while the second (arguably) being Michael Bay.
It says a lot about Smith that hasn't put himself in more hands of singular vision filmmakers. He had a chance to work with Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained, but he skipped the opportunity. Why would he pass up a sure thing hit and a great script? Because it's too edgy for Smith's brand, in addition to the fact the star can't really give script notes to Tarantino -- which he does for most projects he works on.
The last movie we saw Smith in could have been Tarantino's near-masterpiece, but it was instead M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth. A father-son sci-fi adventure pic is certainly more audience-friendly on paper than a hard-R Western involving slavery, but the movie was a total failure; it was Smith's first major box-office bomb.
To give Smith some credit, he strayed away from his image in Shyamalan's creative and financial disaster. Gone was his wisecracking and lean back demeanor; he was playing a total stiff. So, how does Smith followup stepping outside of his comfort zone? By stepping back into his comfort zone.
Focus is an enjoyable film, but, like most of Smith's successful movies, it's "just good enough," rarely achieving greatness. While it is R-rated and for a more adult audience -- which is rare for a Smith-headlined pic -- it's soft, light on its feet, and easy to like. By all accounts, it fits into the box Smith has created for himself. He gives his fans exactly what they want: that smile, a wry sense of humor, and nothing too serious.
It's not a major departure for Smith, but, in some ways, it represents a new chapter in his career. The actor has been telling the press over and over again he's done thinking about box-office and being number one, and maybe he'll turn in more interesting work that way. Perhaps we are on the verge of seeing one of the most bankable stars on the planet reinvent himself, and the signs are there.
Independence Day 2? Smith passed, giving up a gigantic payday.
I Am Legend Prequel? Dead, and probably because Smith didn't see it as a film worth making.
Hancock 2? No news in years.
Bad Boys III? Maybe -- and God willing -- that movie happens, but Smith and all involved aren't rushing to cash in on that property.
Yes, Smith did Men in Black III, but he hasn't run to make sequels to any of his other hits. It took a long time for Men in Black III to even happen. Say what you will about that film -- and I say it's perfectly enjoyable, thanks to Josh Brolin -- waited until the project felt right, even if they didn't have a script ready before they started shooting.
Over the past few years he's batted down sequels, and maybe it's a part of this new Smith we're gonna see in the near-future. He's never played a villain before, and now he is for The Suicide Squad. While Smith will likely be playing a guy who helps save the day, seeing him play a villain -- and in an ensemble film, no less -- is exciting, refreshing, and surprising.
Moral ambiguity is not something Smith has explored much of in his career. I Am Legend could've shown that new side of Smith, but the adaptation softened that character. Ali -- which features the actor's finest performance -- is the closest he's come to playing a fully believable and flawed human being, unlike anything else he's done. In that movie, we weren't watching Will Smith, but the titular character. Big Willie isn't an actor who disappears into roles, but maybe he'll start to.
Smith seems to actually want to push himself as an actor. Does he need to? Maybe, maybe not. Smith has been smart enough not to overwhelm his audience with too many movies, considering he doesn't turnout a movie every year or two. Smith probably still has his audience in his pocket -- and they probably didn't turn up for After Earth because they sensed it was a dud -- but hopefully he continues to show them something new. With Suicide Squad and more promising opportunities in the future, the chances are a new Will Smith is in the works.