- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Will Smith isn’t “Hitch,” as the advertisements would lead us to believe. He’s the man, plain and simple.

The star of the new smash romantic comedy is as sure a box-office bet as they come these days.

A true movie star packs ‘em in with regularity, and Mr. Smith does just that.

The track record speaks for itself — the “Bad Boys” and “Men in Black” franchises, “Independence Day” and “I, Robot,” to name a few.

“Hitch” is the first 2005 film to smash the $100 million mark, coming in at second place over the weekend in its third week of release.

Mr. Smith looks at ease in any genre, from serious dramas such as “Six Degrees of Separation” to science-fiction spectacles including “I, Robot.”

He’s even sneaky enough to cameo in lackluster films such as “Jersey Girl” and walk away with all his movie-star cred intact.

The one lacuna in his resume thus far has been the typical Hollywood romance.

“Hitch,” for all its sundry flaws, fills that hole. Transcending an artificial, overplotted script, Mr. Smith is all cool charisma and charm.

All he needs now is his Meg Ryan — Eva Mendes disqualifies herself with her dour turn in “Hitch” — and we could have a modern-day Tracy and Hepburn. Or at least Hanks and Ryan.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of the Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box-office results, says Mr. Smith shrugs off the labels that cling to other movie stars.

“He is associated largely with action movies … but early in his career he did ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ and was quite good in that,” Mr. Dergarabedian says. “Audiences accept him in any kind of role.”

It helps that he has the talent to back it all up. If he dropped out of the movies tomorrow, he could fall back on his blockbuster rap career.

Not a bad Plan B.

The actor also does his homework before he steps in front of the camera. He transformed his physique to portray Muhammad Ali for that detailed if drab biopic and is rarely caught coasting through a picture.

“He treats every role like its the biggest role of his career,” Mr. Dergarabedian says.

Take “I, Robot,” last summer’s science-fiction hit with an avalanche of computer-driven effects. Mr. Smith gave his role uncommon depth even though the mechanized robots could have been entrusted with the theatrical heavy lifting.

Mr. Smith may be super, but he isn’t bulletproof.

His golf drama “The Legend of Bagger Vance” found him deflecting critics who claimed the role was another variant on the “magical Negro” — in which a black character props up a forlorn white person.

The big-budget bust “Wild, Wild West” drew ghastly reviews as well but still raked in more than $100 million.

The only things holding back Mr. Smith until now were, perhaps, lingering preconceptions about what a black actor could accomplish on-screen. Were Hollywood executives until recently uncertain whether Mr. Smith could carry a romance that audiences of all colors would watch?

Well, they have their answer in “Hitch.”

Now the only racial barrier left to topple is to be paired up opposite a white actress. We bet even those of harder hearts would buy Mr. Smith in such a role if they gave him half a chance.

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