There’s Something Different About Will Smith—or Maybe About Us

9 minute read

Even beyond the sparkling interior quality that marks a true movie star, actors are paid to play characters, not just buffed and polished versions of themselves. When we talk about “likable” actors, we’re responding to a performer’s ability to translate certain qualities onscreen. Our job as viewers is to be alive to their expressiveness, to the beauty of their features whether classical or quirky, to the way they swagger, slouch, or dance. We have the freedom to love the creation without having to wrestle with the human complexities of its creator.

But what happens when we learn too much about what an actor is really like? And why, even though we know better, do we still feel a little betrayed when we hear, say, Christian Bale berating a cinematographer on a leaked recording, or, worse, learn that Henry Fonda, an actor who gave a human face to civic-minded ideals, had little tenderness to spare for his own children? Actors aren’t our friends, yet our relationship with them can be more complicated than friendship. What happens when an actor behaves in a way that makes us recoil from the essence of the actor-viewer bond: the mere sight of his face?

Bad Boys: Ride or Die isn’t Will Smith’s first movie since Oscar night 2022, when he strode up from his seat and slapped Chris Rock hard across the face, after Rock made an unkind and not-particularly-funny quip about the shaved head of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Smith has appeared in one other movie since then, Antoine Fuqua’s slave drama Emancipation. But Bad Boys: Ride or Die—the fourth entry in a series that kicked off with 1995’s Bad Boys, when Smith and his costar Martin Lawrence were practically just kids—isn’t a drama but an action comedy, the kind of movie designed to draw a wide audience, and as such it’s Smith’s first major theatrical release since 2022. Smith has always been capable of bringing a worldwide audience to the big screen. The previous Bad Boys installment, Bad Boys for Life, released in January 2020, roughly two months before the pandemic brought moviegoing to a halt, made $426 million globally. Thanks at least in part to that pandemic pause, Bad Boys for Life ended up being the top-grossing movie of the year.

Read more: Will Smith’s Slap Was Shocking. The Debate That Followed Was Not

Will Smith; Martin Lawrence
Smith and Lawrence in Ride or Die.Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Yet Ride or Die faces not just one box-office obstacle but two: beyond the fact that moviegoers have been slow to return to theaters this spring, Ride or Die stars a former sure thing who now could be a liability. Not everyone loves Will Smith: I used to hear complaints from people who found him gratingly ingratiating as a performer, and we shouldn’t fully discount the coded idea that a “likable” Black male performer is merely one who’s nonthreatening to white audiences. Smith did costar, alongside Matt Damon, in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Robert Redford’s mistily misguided 2000 ode to an era when Black people were told that their place was helping white folk. Still, you can’t fault Smith for his performance in that film, which seems more awkward than self-assured, as if he were trying against all odds to maintain some dignity in the midst of the picture’s weird lack of awareness.

Besides, a misstep or two never stopped Smith. After getting off to a running start in the 1990s, he became one of the best-loved—and, for the studios, most profitable—actors of the early 2000s. As half of the early ’90s rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince—and later, playing a version of himself on TV's long-running The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—he was an affable cutup, a good-looking kid who could get away with anything, but who didn’t try to get away with much. Before long, he’d become that peculiarly cursed commodity known as a bankable star: he may have made his name, and the bulk of his money, in action comedies like Bad Boys and Men in Black (1997), both followed by multiple sequels. But he also gave superb, affecting performances in movies like Ali (2001), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), and I Am Legend (2007), and he was often the best thing about not-so-great movies like I, Robot (2004). And in 2021’s King Richard, he was fantastic as Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, a proud-papa peacock whose stubbornness and drive brought out the best in his girls, even as it sometimes prevented him from being the best father or husband (to Aunjanue Ellis’ Brandy, also terrific). It was a performance with bravado but without vanity; Smith had reached a point in his career where he could walk that balance with ease.

Will Smith in King Richard.Courtesy Warner Bros.

While you don’t have to like Will Smith, it’s not easy to turn away from the idea of his likability. And it’s possible that over the years his easygoing affability on-screen set him free, becoming a kind of platform on which he could build more complex performances. Smith has often leaned toward somewhat conventional and generally uplifting stories in his dramatic roles. But even if he has chosen, and in some cases produced, clunkers like the 2008 Seven Pounds (in which he plays a man who tries to atone for a tragic mistake by donating his organs to deserving recipients—ugh), you rarely get the sense that he’s sleepwalking through a role. In The Pursuit of Happyness, set in the 1980s and based on a true story, he plays a salesman and single dad (his son is played by the very young Jaden Smith) who finds himself homeless on his way to building a better life.

This is one of Smith’s greatest performances: if, in some scenes, his character comes off as one of those bouncy clown toys, bounding back with a smile every time he’s knocked down, in others he shows something like muted terror—hiding his anxiety from his son takes something out of him, and it shows. The movie, despite what its title might make you believe, never devolves into a sappy fable about surviving tough times with laughter and smiles. It’s a story about how easy it is for a hardworking, responsible person to find himself at the edge of society. Smith was already a multimillionaire by the time he made Pursuit. You could argue that these are the types of roles rich actors should be taking, but not all of them do. If Smith had found a huge audience with his action films and comedies, he brought at least some of that audience along with him in his more serious roles. And no matter how much money he made, he continued to give off an “I’m still just me!” vibe, as if he truly believed, deep down, that he could be the Fresh Prince for all eternity.

He might have pulled it off—and he may still pull it off. It’s hard to know how much of his audience was forever turned off by the slap incident, and how many don’t really care. Ride or Die, like Bad Boys for Life, was directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the Belgian filmmaking team known as Adil & Bilall. (The first two installments were directed by music-video-director-turned-explosion-maestro Michael Bay.) It’s one of those pictures that’s clearly designed to please fans rather than forge any new territory. Smith’s character, Miami detective Mike Lowrey, and his partner, Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett, are called upon to clear the name of the duo’s late boss, Joe Pantoliano’s Captain Howard, who has become posthumously implicated in some bad drug-cartel stuff. The movie opens with a wedding: Mike is finally settling down. (His bride is played by Melanie Liburd.) The plot will force him to reckon with his estranged son, incarcerated criminal Armando (Jacob Scipio), introduced in Bad Boys for Life. Early in the film, Marcus’ bad eating habits get the better of him and he suffers a heart attack, only to feel invincible when he recovers. The banter between him and his longtime partner tangles with deep subjects, like mortality, as well as ridiculous ones: Marcus claims that Mike was a donkey in another life, and Marcus was his owner. He was the cool one, the smart one, the one giving orders.

Will Smith
Smith in action in the fourth (and latest) installment of the Bad Boys franchiseCourtesy of Sony Pictures

Lawrence looks more or less his age; he’s 59. Smith is 55, but he has that smoothed-over, ageless look that many of the richest stars buy for themselves, either through expensive products or more extensive procedures. He looks good, at least in the generic sense. His comic timing is as on-the-button as ever; he gamely takes on whatever rough-and-tumble action the movie demands of him. He is, it seems, as appealing as ever.

Yet there’s something different about him, or maybe there’s just something different about us. Smith came off like a bully when he swaggered up to Rock that night and whacked him across the jaw. Maybe it was just a case of a somewhat hot-headed guy being caught in a bad mood. It could happen to anyone. But it still revealed a truth about him: that behind the façade of a performer who has spent decades earning our faith in his breezy on-screen persona—as well as giving persuasive performances that collapsed, in the best way, the distance between performer and audience—there’s a man desperate to control the vibrations in the air around him.

Even if Smith was ostensibly defending his wife’s honor, he’d made that moment all about himself. Eventually, he apologized, profusely if unconvincingly. Was he just having an off night, or were his actions ignited by deep-seated meanness? We all saw, at least momentarily, something like meanness cross his face. We’ll never really know what he was thinking, but watching him onscreen is different now. It’s an actor’s job to snow us, to charm us, to make us believe in whatever character he’s inventing before our eyes. Now we have a better sense of how much energy Smith has to expend to give off that radiant, seemingly generous light, when it used to be a thing he just handed us, like a gift.

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