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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Will Smith – The Last Action Hero

Much has been made of the critical response to Hancock(my colleague David Poland has done a good job of assessing that) and one of the most interesting comparisons made was to Last Action Hero. Personally, I don’t see the comparison at all, but I definitely felt while watching the film that Will Smith is, indeed, our last action hero. More to the point, I feel that he is the only old-school movie star we have left. I don’t mean “old school” in the way we view George Clooney as a throwback to Cary Grant, but rather Will Smith is a reminder of a time when stars dominated the marketplace: the 80’s. These days, we simply don’t have that many surefire, can’t-miss-at-the-box-office movie stars. Considering that Hancock – not a critical sensation – did over a hundred million bucks at the box office on Independence Day weekend and Smith now has a string of eight straight hundred million dollar films, I think it’s safe to say that he is a can’t miss star at this point.

By pretty much any measure Will Smith is the biggest movie star on the planet, garnering two Academy Award nominations on his way to billions of dollars in worldwide grosses, and the truth of the matter is that nobody else is really close in terms of an ability to appeal to all quadrants. Whatever film he chooses to do, you can pencil in a hundred million dollar gross because there really aren’t many people who dislike him. I don’t often hear people spouting off about how they will avoid a movie because of him, rather his appearance in a movie is an assurance of a certain kind of spectacle. Usually there would be some kind of backlash by now, but he has avoided some pitfalls and gone on an incredible winning streak, deftly vacillating between big-budget sci-fi films and big-budget dramas.

It’s apropos that he’s been spotted hanging out with Tom Cruise so much because he has truly inherited the mantle from Cruise – whose star is clearly, sadly waning – who burst upon the scene in the early 1980’s. Cruise’s star really exploded in 1986, right around the time he starred in the Bruckheimer/Simpson vehicle Top Gun and Will Smith followed suit nine years later appearing in the Bruckheimer/Simpson vehicle Bad Boys. We rooted for Cruise in much the same way that we now root for Smith: because he seems like a good guy, sure, but more importantly because he seems to really enjoy what he’s doing.

If we were to look at this from a talent perspective, there is no question that Smith is an extremely gifted actor (as is Cruise, though that’s a column for another day). His work in I Am Legend approaches the heights of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. That was when it first hit me what a massive star Will Smith is; when you can command the screen all by yourself without once boring the audience, with nothing but a few CGI vampires and a dog…that’s impressive. And that type of wattage goes beyond merely saying, “what a terrific actor!” No, that kind of feat is indicative of a kind of movie star we haven’t seen around these parts in quite a while and it’s not something that can be learned at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Of course, his performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness showed that the man has a range that includes both wonderful impersonation and full-bodied realization. It’s clear from his choices that he not only wants to entertain us, but he wants to challenge himself.

So when I watched Hancock, I wasn’t reminded in the least by Last Action Hero – that fabled flop starring Arnold Schwarzenegger which may have signaled a sea-change in our collective movie-going tastes; at the time, we no longer wanted silly concept vehicles starring brawny actors, we wanted action heroes and movie stars that weren’t born with glandular problems and in a few years, that’s exactly what we would get. The reason I wasn’t reminded of Last Action Hero was because while watching Will Smith lift buses and soar through the sky, I realized that there was really no other actor today that we would buy in this role; there is no other movie star that we would believe is indestructible and immortal; there is no other person that we would accept as an oft-described “asshole” and still roll with him in a big-budget blockbuster. I don’t think the movie is anything particularly wonderful or horrible, but I was astounded that I couldn’t think of one other actor that could pull off the role. And I’m not talking about the acting chops involved in a role like this, I’m talking about pure believability based on persona and Smith has created a persona in his public life that makes us buy him as a guy who bullets bounce off of. Smith is really just that magnetic.

There is, however, a problem that comes with being that big of a star and it is this: nobody can match him. And this was a big issue when watching Hancock because as wonderful as I thinkCharlize Theron is, she just doesn’t seem like the equal of Will Smith. Regardless of whether or not you liked Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it was clear that the stars of that film were perfectly matched against each other in every possible way; it was impossible for one to blow the other off the screen because they they possess equal magnetism. Although Charlize Theron is a strong actress (I’d even go so far as to say she’s great), she is almost invisible in her scenes with Will Smith in Hancock and for such a great beauty like her, that might be a first. And in the scenes with Jason Bateman, who is droll and subtle at his most emotive, Smith can’t ratchet down his fire enough to make it seem like they are even in the same movie. The reason I Am Legend worked so well in the first hour is because there was nobody for Smith to spar with, which made us focus our attention on the actor we would be focusing on anyway. It falls apart as soon as we are introduced to other actors and it feels almost like a disappointment because we won’t be getting our Big Willie all by himself anymore.

Of course, this little problem could be rectified somewhat by the choices Smith makes. Instead of making a film about an all-powerful superhero or the last man on Earth or the ultimate matchmaker or “the Greatest of All-Time”, perhaps he should focus his attentions on being just a regular guy. It seems that he keeps adding to his resume of exceptional, larger-than-life personalities and it’s great in a way because he’s the only guy that can play these kinds of roles, but if he’s truly an actor that wants to challenge himself, then I think it would be wise for him to simmer down a bit and focus on crafting a character that doesn’t have any remarkable tics to him.

Later this year, he’s re-teaming with the extremely talented Gabriele Muccino – who not only directed Smith in his best-yet performance in The Pursuit of Happyness but is also the man behind the incredible Italian film Remember Me, My Love – on Seven Pounds, in which our man will be playing an IRS agent. This seems like a step in the right direction for me, because it’s all well and good for someone to be a movie star; but for me, what I really want to see every time I see a film is greatness and being a movie star and being “great” is not always the same thing.

We know the man can be an unstoppable superhero, but can he make the role of an ordinary guy interesting? I think so, because after all, he’s the only real movie star we’ve got.

– Noah Forrest
July 8, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon