LOS ANGELES — The boy of summer is back. Since the mid-1990s, Will Smith practically has owned July, delivering hit after hit, his charm often enough to draw in audiences even for bad movies.
This July, Smith is trying something different. “I, Robot,” loosely adapted from the short stories of Isaac Asimov, has more smarts than the usual Smith summer movie, preserving much of the philosophy that made sci-fi master Asimov’s tales a blueprint for fiction that followed about human-machine interaction.
Yet “I, Robot” also delivers the brawn, action and wisecracking that audiences have come to expect from Smith this time of year in such flicks as “Independence Day,” the “Men in Black” movies and last year’s “Bad Boys II.”
“I think when we look back in 50 years, the one discernible skill that Will Smith will have displayed is the ability to choose a summer movie. I think that is my skill more than anything,” Smith, 35, told The Associated Press, recalling with a laugh how he’s scored hits with movies critics trashed, such as “Independence Day” and “Wild Wild West.”
“I am a serious summer movie fan, and I know the type of movie that needs to be in July. I have a sense of what audiences want to see. What I hoped to develop with ‘I, Robot’ was the ability to push it forward.”
Set in 2035, the movie stars Smith as a Chicago cop with deep mistrust of the robots that have taken over for humans on trash collecting, dog-walking and other menial chores.
The machines are programmed to obey Asimov’s famed three laws ensuring they will not injure humans or allow humans to come to harm through inaction. And while no robot has ever committed a crime, Smith’s character is convinced one of the machines has carried out a murder.
Pondering the big questions
In between highway chases, car wrecks, explosions and gunfire, “I, Robot” ponders the nature of intelligence, the unforeseen contradictions in machine logic, and the timely notion of whether individual freedoms must be sacrificed for the good of humanity.
Video: Video Trailer: 'I, Robot' The film even incorporates the irony of a black cop accused of unreasoning prejudice against robots when Smith’s character is told, “I suspect you just don’t like their kind.”
“What’s great about this film is it doesn’t compromise the other side. It doesn’t compromise the special effects, it doesn’t compromise the action sequences. But what it does is it gives a whole other side that’s a little smarter,” Smith said.
Accustomed to physical training for action roles, Smith said “I, Robot” also required the same level of dramatic preparation he put in for more serious films such as “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Ali,” which earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor.
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While “Ali” was a box-office lemon, Smith’s intense performance surprised people, especially considering the advance gripes from fans who felt the Fresh Prince of rap and TV sitcom fame was a lightweight choice to play Muhammad Ali.
Along with picking the right summer movie, the element of surprise has been a consistent strength for Smith, who has confounded doubters with every career turn.
After his 1980s music success as part of the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Smith defied expectations by scoring with the television hit “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
Smith encountered similar skepticism when he moved to the big screen but silenced critics with hit after hit. His moves into meatier drama on “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “Ali” failed to bring in crowds, but Smith’s acting chops were a revelation for fans who had pigeonholed him as just an on-screen wiseguy.
“I view pigeonholes as good things, because that means you catch people blind,” Smith said. “The one thing I learned in boxing is, the best thing that can happen is you get pigeonholed, that your opponent thinks you only throw two lefts then a right. Then you suddenly mix it up on him.”
With a cameo role in this year’s “Jersey Girl,” Smith poked fun at himself and the low expectations people once had for him. In a scene set in the mid-1990s, Ben Affleck’s character, a music publicist, heaps scorn on the idea that the Fresh Prince would ever have a movie career to speak of.
'Enjoys every aspect of what he does'
“He’s a multitalented guy. He’s got immense energy. He’s a dynamo. He works like crazy and loves what he does. He really enjoys every aspect of what he does,” said “I, Robot” director Alex Proyas. “It seems like a lot of actors sort of find their little niche and stick to it, where Will is all about trying something new each time.”
Come fall, Smith provides the lead voice to the undersea animated comedy “Shark Tale,” about a small fry who becomes a big fish when he falsely takes credit for doing in a great white that was the son of the local mob boss. The voice cast includes Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Angelina Jolie and Jack Black.
Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, also is trying the cartoon game, providing the voice of a hippo for next year’s animated adventure “Madagascar.” The family flicks, along with the PG-13-rated “I, Robot,” are welcome news to the couple’s young son and daughter and Smith’s son from a previous marriage.
The children were shut out of the couple’s R-rated offerings last year, Will Smith in “Bad Boys II” and Jada Pinkett Smith in “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions.”
“My son said to me, ‘Daddy, I thought the reason that we put up with this was so we can see the stuff,”’ Smith said. “So I said, ‘OK, you’re right.’ Now I’ve got a couple in a row that the kids can see.”
Early next year, Smith has his first romantic comedy lead with “Last First Kiss,” in which he plays a “date doctor” who guarantees male clients that he can make women fall in love with them in three days.
Smith also has a new album due out around the holidays. A self-described techno-geek, Smith said the album will feature a song whose vocals and instrumentation were recorded and mixed with a portable keyboard and a laptop keyboard, all on his own in a hotel room.
Meantime, Smith and his wife continue as executive producers on “All of Us,” the TV sitcom loosely inspired by their domestic life as a couple building a second family after a divorce.
With success in movies, music and television, Smith keeps himself grounded with the thought that “there’s something greater that I would like to achieve, there’s something greater in store for me in the universe,” he said.
“I don’t view it as the end, as where I was going. I don’t say, ‘Whoa, I’ve succeeded,”’ Smith said. “I still feel like I’m in the trenches. I love my life, I love where I am, but I don’t feel like I have arrived. ...
“I’ll keep doing it all as long as people want to hear it. Well, actually, I’ll do it probably a little bit longer than people want to hear it.”
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