Will Smith's 10 Best Movie Roles, Ranked

The Willennium may have started nearly a quarter of a century ago, but Will Smith has been dominating on screen since the early 1990s. The Academy Award-winning star has been a blockbuster juggernaut with a commanding presence on screen, dabbling in anything and everything. Serious fare like "Concussion," edgy superhero stories like "Hancock" and "Suicide Squad," action-packed dramas like "Enemy of the State," sci-fi thrillers like "I, Robot," musicals like "Aladdin," and plenty of goofy nonsense like "Shark Tale" and "Wild Wild West" have all let Big Willy Style flex his acting muscles and show that he truly is a jack of all trades. From his humble beginnings in the ensemble piece "Where the Day Takes You" to the recently announced "Bad Boys: Ride or Die," Smith is one of Hollywood's most prolific and profitable performers. And fortunately, he's also one of the best. It's time to get jiggy wit' it and discuss Will Smith's 10 best movie roles, ranked.

10. Alex Hitch Hitchens (Hitch)

Okay, okay, now before you come at me with some thinkpiece about how this movie and the entire culture of 2000s pick-up artists/date doctors are all rooted in manipulation and misogyny ... I KNOW, I LIVED IT, I WAS THERE! All of that said, it's a testament to Will Smith's talent as an actor to make a character like Alex "Hitch" Hitchens so damn endearing. Smith shines as the titular "Hitch," mentoring his unlucky-in-love client, Albert (Kevin James) while simultaneously falling into his own romantic situation with tabloid reporter Sara Melas (Eva Mendes). Smith has always been a charmer, and Hitch allows him to really play into that aspect of his personality.

On paper, I should despise Hitch as a person, but in the hands of Will Smith, I can't help but love him. Smith effortlessly portrays Hitch as the smooth, confident ladies' man he advertises himself to be, but there's always this wink of vulnerability simmering underneath — making the character's backstory feel earned when it finally comes to light. "Hitch" should have been one of those aughts rom-coms that drifted into obscurity, but the power of Smith turned it into a box office smash and a film constantly cited as an underrated gem.

9. Agent J (Men in Black series)

Will Smith will always be the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to folks of a certain age, but for that generation just a little bit younger, he'll forever be cemented in their minds as Agent J in the "Men in Black" series. Recruited by the mysterious unofficial government agency after years of success as an NYPD officer, Agent J brings a delightfully chaotic flair to the M.I.B. order. His colleagues are stuffy, conservative, and serious, while Agent J is here to bring the spice and the party. His personality is huge and he's constantly spitting family-friendly barbs at his partner, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). The chemistry between the pair is palpable, and the ungodly huge box office performance helped launch a franchise beyond the comic book source material that continues to this day.

Action comedies, especially sci-fi action comedies, are difficult to pull off. But with the "Men in Black" films, Smith was crowned as the king. Not to mention, his tie-in single for the film, also titled "Men in Black," reached number one in multiple countries and earned Smith a Grammy Award in 1998 for Best Rap Solo Performance. The song heavily samples "Forget Me Nots" by Patrice Rushen, which was a trending song on TikTok with its own viral dance (that eventually made its way into "Fortnite"). Will Smith's influence is ever present, and "Men in Black" was just the start of his empire.

8. Nicky Spurgeon (Focus)

Remember when Will Smith and Margot Robbie starred opposite one another in a crime comedy? Yeah, I didn't think you did either, and that's a real bummer because it's home to one of Smith's most underrated performances! "Focus" had a bit of a difficult production history, with Ryan Gosling and Ben Affleck originally slated to play veteran conman Nicky Spurgeon, who takes a would-be femme fatale under his wing to show her the ropes of a career in crime. Alas, after both men dropped out, leaving the project with a pre-Harley Quinn/"I, Tonya" Robbie as the main draw, Warner Bros. wasn't sure if the project would move forward without "a name." Sounds silly to think of a time when Margot Robbie wasn't a license to print money, but that's showbiz, baby!

Luckily, Smith answered the call, showed up, and gave a startlingly great performance that felt beyond his usual fare. As a film, "Focus" isn't reinventing the low-stakes crime thriller wheel by any means, but this is a different brand of "cool" for Smith. He's not leaning into his usual schtick nor is he taking the character too seriously. It's a suave performance where he gets to play a professional liar, teacher, and chameleon his way into different con personas. It's a truly inspired turn from an actor most think they've "figured out" by now, and one that stands on its own from a script of endless plot twists.

7. Paul (Six Degrees of Separation)

In the middle of Will Smith's run on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and when his music career was starting to explode, director Fred Schepisi cast Smith in his breakthrough leading film role for "Six Degrees of Separation." Adapted from John Guare's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play of the same name and based on the real-life crimes of David Hampton, Smith plays the charming and enigmatic Paul, a young, gay Black man who shows up on the doorstep of wealthy art dealers Flan and Ouisa, claiming to know their children from Harvard. The family welcomes him in without question, but when he claims to be the son of the trailblazing Black artist Sidney Poitier, the family starts to investigate to discover the truth.

At only 24 years old, Smith is holding his own against powerhouses like Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing (who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance) without breaking a sweat. Once his con is uncovered, all of the wealthy WASPS he's duped revel in how well he pulled a fast one on them all, which is the sign of a truly effective scammer. Only a character played by Will Smith could take advantage of you and make you feel grateful for the experience. Smith's first leading film role more than proved that he's always had the juice.

And while I'm here, let the record state I firmly believe Smith should remake this film as a director and tell the story from Paul's perspective.

6. Chris Gardner (The Pursuit of Happyness)

There are a few moments that are guaranteed to trigger instant waterworks out of me, and watching Will Smith's Chris Gardner cry as he holds his son (played by his actual son Jaden Smith) while also trying to keep a train station bathroom door shut so people won't discover they're homeless and seeking shelter inside is easily in my top five. Based on the real story of Chris Gardner who went from homelessness to becoming a stock broker on Wall Street, "The Pursuit of Happyness" earned Smith his second Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, and his heartfelt performance is still hailed as one of his best.

The film itself is, admittedly, beyond melodramatic. But there's a relatable groundedness to Smith's performance that prevents the overall story from becoming a fluffy tearjerker. Smith is downright mesmerizing in this role and the lived-in love between him and his son is immeasurable. When he cries, we cry, because he makes the stakes feel tangibly monumental. When his character is finally offered a job as a stockbroker, the emotional journey Smith's face takes is nothing short of brilliant. He struggles to hold it together while being washed over with the joy of realizing he got the job, the relief that he's not going to be homeless, and the released floodgates of everything he's been refusing to feel in order to succeed all exit at once. There's a reason this moment is used as a reaction gif all over social media. We've all felt half a dozen emotions at once, and Smith is one of the very best at showcasing what that looks like.

5. Captain Steven Hiller (Independence Day)

When I think about "Will Smith: Movie Star," the first character that comes to mind is Captain Steven Hiller, the wise-cracking, alien-defeating, hopelessly romantic hero of Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day." His first major film following the end of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," Smith's turn as the savior of the American people (alongside an always delightful Jeff Goldblum) immediately made him one of the most bankable blockbuster stars.

Given the severity of aliens about to take over the world, everyone in "Independence Day" is playing their role as seriously as a car wreck, but Smith's natural sense of humor kept the energy fun and gave us a character to really root for. Sure, Bill Pullman solidifies himself as the greatest cinematic president with his now iconic, world-uniting speech, but it's Captain Hiller who is the true heart and soul of the film.

His delivery of lines like "Welcome to Earth," "Now that's what I call a close encounter," "Elvis has left the building," and "I have got to get me one of these!" have become cultural touchpoints, and while "Independence Day: Resurgence" was a lot of dumb fun, it was in desperate need of Smith's charm. And yes, yes, smoking is bad, but has anyone ever looked cooler with a cigar? I think not.

4. Cassius Clay Jr./Muhammad Ali (Ali)

Largely considered to be the role that helped a majority of the world realize "Holy crap, Will Smith can act," his turn as Cassius Clay Jr. aka Cassius X aka Muhammad Ali was a massive risk that earned Smith some serious accolades. His first venture into the realm of biopics could have been a disaster given the fact the subject is literally known as "The Greatest," but Smith portrayed the champion boxer with unbelievable grace. Paired with director Michael Mann's vision, "Ali" is an absolute triumph. As /News's Jeremy Smith pointed out:

"Though Mann's 'Ali' was generally well-received when it was released in 2001, critics complained that it essentially told the same 'Rumble in the Jungle' story as Leon Gast's Oscar-winning 1996 documentary, 'When We Were Kings.' In doing so, they overlooked what is easily the most technically detailed and accurate dramatization of 'the sweet science' ever put to film. Gast's movie was a rousing historical document. Mann's masterpiece is a deeply absorbing portrait of inconceivable greatness. To pull it off, Smith couldn't just look the part; he had to be the part.

And be the part he was. Smith trained with Angelo Dundee, performed his fight sequences against actual boxers, and beautifully captured the more intimate moments of one of the greatest athletes to ever do it.

3. Richard Williams (King Richard)

"King Richard" is another example of Smith taking on the role of a real-life person, this time tackling famed tennis coach and father of tennis champions Venus and Serena, Richard Williams. The film is a pretty standard dramatic sports biopic, but Smith's performance as the titular man elevated it into an entirely different stratosphere. Smith spent the entire year leading up to the 2022 Academy Awards as the no-questions-asked front-runner for Best Actor and was eventually awarded the statue for his portrayal.

As /News's Hoai-Tran Bui said in her review of the film, "The actor has coasted by on his mega-watt charisma since his days in Bel-Air, but every now and then, he'll slouch those broad shoulders and wrinkle that handsome brow and prove that he can, indeed, act. And when he does it well, he can damn near disappear into the role, as he does in Reinaldo Marcus Green's 'King Richard.'"

Unfortunately, the night Smith was finally awarded for his decades of work was also the night presenter Chris Rock publicly ridiculed Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, the final straw in what had been years of antagonizing her on a public stage. Smith took to the stage and slapped Rock in the middle of the ceremony, earning himself a 10-year ban from all Academy events or programs, and his resignation as an Academy member. This has unfortunately become the legacy of Smith's performance in "King Richard," which is a shame because it's definitively one of his very best.

2. Detective Lieutenant Mike Lowrey (Bad Boys series)

Some roles feel synonymous with the actor who plays it, a cherished example of a person being seemingly born to bring the character to life. In the filmography of Will Smith, that character is Miami PD detective Mike Lowery in Michael Bay's "Bad Boys" series. One-half of the action-packed buddy cop team (alongside Martin Lawrence's detective Marcus Burnett), Mike is a wealthy playboy with an excellent sense of fashion but still great at his job. He kicks ass, he unloads perfectly timed one-liners, and he's got the best sunglasses in the game. Simply put — Mike Lowrey is Will Smith's coolness distilled into a single character. While the role might not be as emotionally challenging as some of his more dramatic roles, all three (soon to be four) "Bad Boys" films are anchored by Smith's dynamite performances.

Smith was just 26 when he first stepped into the role in 1995's "Bad Boys" for Michael Bay's feature directorial debut, which means the character has aged and evolved as the actor has. While he's not as spry or coasting off of a false sense of invincibility as he did nearly 30 years ago, that charismatic young gun is still present after all these years. If you ever doubt how or why Will Smith became one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, pop in "Bad Boys II" and let him blow you away.

1. Dr. Robert Neville (I Am Legend)

Will Smith has proven he can do it all, and only one role in his filmography has truly allowed him to showcase the range of his talent — Dr. Robert Neville in "I Am Legend." Disregarding the constant drama and debate surrounding the film's controversial ending (which was a huge change from the Richard Matheson novel source material), "I Am Legend" is Smith's so-far magnum opus. He spends the majority of the film completely alone, acting against himself or his pet dog, and trades in his usual smart-mouthed snark for the determined stillness of a scientist trying to survive the end of the world. This film lives and dies through the effectiveness of Smith's performance, and Smith's performance is certainly responsible for the film's massive box-office success and continued legacy.

It's also one of the roles that Smith himself is most proud of, telling the Awards Chatter podcast, "I'm obsessed with trying to put small character dramas into the middle of blockbuster packages." He continued, "The most successful I've ever been with that concept is 'I Am Legend.'" And this is precisely what he accomplishes. "I Am Legend" is a post-apocalyptic thriller that borders on horror, but Smith delivered a serious character study about the presumed last man on Earth. There are plenty of sharp-tongued actors who can play similiar Blockbuster roles and plenty of dedicated thespians who can pull off a moving biopic drama ... but "I am Legend" is Will Smith.