While his performance in I Am Legend may not be the best of Will Smith’s career, it is the one that best defines his talents. There aren’t too many so-called movie stars as capable of being convincing actors, and vice versa. Smith can pull off action movies, romantic comedies, and heavier dramas in part because he’s honed his craft to match his natural charisma and in part because the guy makes exceedingly smart business decisions.
I Am Legend represents a step forward for him because it not only confirms him as a likable, intelligent action hero, it also broadens his already wide fan base to include acolytes of science fiction and horror.
Based on the book of the same name by Richard Matheson, I Am Legend has appeared in theaters before as The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, and as Omega Man, with Charlton Heston. The basic story is as simple as you can make it: One survivor remains after a virus wipes out the world’s population. To spice up his everyday existence, Robert Neville (Smith) tries to find a cure for the virus, for which he needs human subjects. Good thing there’s a horde of infected zombie-like vampire creatures who come out at night.
Neville’s race is as much against boredom as it is against time; he sustains himself quite well, as a former soldier and the scientist who was studying the virus when it consumed the planet. But his only companions are his dog and the mannequins he’s placed throughout New York City so that he has some regular encounters. That is, until the infected horde starts getting smarter. Then the encounters happen a little too frequently.
Constantine director Francis Lawrence creates a post-apocalyptic world with a heartbeat. Despite the emptied streets in the City That Only Sleeps, New York becomes a character of its own, aching for the life to come back. Additionally, the action sequences are taut and potentially scary if you go in for that sort of thing.
What Lawrence perhaps should have spent more time developing are the infected creatures, which are portrayed by real actors but appear to have been sloppily reanimated with computer effects. It’s bad enough that it could have ruined I Am Legend, but it doesn't.
Credit that to another terrific performance by Will Smith, who, whatever the film’s outcome may be, manages to escape unscathed.
I Am Legend
Starring Will Smith and Alice Braga
Directed by Francis Lawrence