It was 2008 and Will Smith was the biggest star in the world. It was an era of filmmaking for the Philly native that was hit after hit. It was more than just another movie, it was a Will Smith event. For two hours we were swept away by a cult of personality, unbridled charisma, and sheer force of nature. But now knee deep in his 40s, has the king lost his crown?
It was Will Smith who declared “I will make my best films in my 40s”. I thought how awesome. While many movie stars are trudging out to pasture, Mr. Smith is taking an already stellar career to another level. But let’s take a closer look at the films of his 40s.
A lot of people slept on After Earth. I thought it was terrific. It had the misfortune of being labeled “nepotism at its finest in Hollywood”. There was the perception that Mr. Smith was forcing his son upon us. I did not share this sentiment. If anything, Jaden acquitted himself nicely in The Karate Kid. Also, Will made the dubious decision in hiring M. Night Shyamalan whose filmmaking career is somewhere in the wilderness, trying to find its way back to the promise land. I thought Sony tried to hide M. Night from the marketing and when the audience got wind of his signature on the film, they lost trust. After Earth landed with a thud in the states. Internationally, it was a hit, grossing nearly 200M dollars. Smith maintained his international muscle. Most importantly, the film hit upon some personal themes very close to the life affirming philosophy of Will Smith. I personally liked the message of conquering our fear. Kitai (Jaden Smith) comes to the understanding that fear is not only a choice, but an illusion created by the mind. By focusing on the moment instead of the outcome, he devised a fear suppression technique called “ghosting”.
Then Mr. Smith released Focus. This movie was a step back for me. It was pale imitation of Ocean’s Eleven and one of my favorite grifter films from the 70s Harry In Your Pocket. Though it wasn’t cohesive and fully baked, I was most disappointed with walking away with no message. I believe the mark of a great film is its lessons on life. Am I exiting the theater better than I was on the way in? Otherwise, it’s just popcorn and soda.
Mr. Smith seems to be taking himself very seriously in his 40s and shedding the charismatic playboy we came to love in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s an interesting new direction. I trust him because I believe he gets it. Case in point, when he turned down Django Unchained because “Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead.” I love that. He’s a king and kings play second fiddle to no one.
Mr. Smith has also gifted us Men In Black 3 in the 40s era. I totally understand why he chose this project. It was his unofficial return to movies and he needed a big brand name. What better than a billion dollar franchise? Next up? Suicide Squad. Mr. Smith is the name above title and far and away the biggest star in an ensemble piece. He is playing the hero/anti-hero and leader of a counterculture motley crew of meta-humans. He mission is to both save the world and emotionally reconnect with his daughter.
It is safe to say that Will Smith has diversified his portfolio in his 40s. It appears Will Smith version 4.0 is a little darker, edgier, and driven. There are very few bona-fide leading men today. To get to that level takes, as Lillian Gish said many moons ago, taste, talent and tenacity. As a believer in the smarts and gusto of WS 4.0, I am confident that he can successfully craft a new image – a new beacon of truth. It may not be the lovable Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, but it will be a manifestation of an artist that knows his time and place on earth, knows his kingship, and the power for change that lies in his hands.