From streetwise teens through alien-battling secret agents to the greatest boxing legend of all time, Concussion star Will Smith has a dramatic range that often goes underappreciated. Adam Smith charts six landmark acting roles in Smith’s back catalogue

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)

The smash hit TV sitcom about an inner-city kid transplanted to live with his rich uncle and his family in an upscale Los Angeles neighbourhood ran for six years between 1990 and 1996,  becoming one of a generation’s beloved sitcoms and being nominated for a host of awards including two Emmys. Its success hinged almost solely on Smith’s likeable, and hugely popular, turn as the sassy street youth with a host of easily digested life lessons ahead of him. But he revealed himself to be capable of moments of surprising depth and emotion, too, as in a scene in an episode titled Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse, when Smith’s absent father turns up, only to abandon him for a second time, which reduced the studio audience to audible tears, and is still remembered 20 years on.

Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

While The Fresh Prince was at the height of his popularity, Smith revealed his range as a movie actor with two films in the same year. Bad Boys, directed by Michael Bay, was a buddy-cop movie which cannily transplanted the wisecracking persona that Smith had established on television to the big screen and doused it in a piquant cocktail of gasoline and testosterone. But Six Degrees of Separation, a low-budget indie, was a deliberate, and highly effective departure for the then 25-year-old. Smith plays a mysterious stranger who ingratiates himself into the lives of a rich New York couple, claiming to be a college friend of their children and, impressively enough, the son of Sidney Poitier. Smith brings his familiar charm but injects a thrillingly unexpected sense of danger to a role that announced he was a new and exciting talent with vastly more potential than anyone had predicted.

Independence Day (1996)

After the cancellation of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and having established his indie chops with Six Degrees of Separation, Smith completed his invention of himself as a copper-bottomed movie star with Independence Day, which on its release in 1996 became the second biggest-grossing film of all time. It’s easy to forget, though, that Roland Emmerich’s reboot of the then moribund alien invasion movie was conceived not as a star vehicle for Smith but as an ensemble piece, with Smith’s character having relatively little screen time. The fact that it is remembered primarily for his character, Air Force pilot Captain Steve Hiller, a cigar-chomping all American sky-jockey with a grudge against interstellar interlopers, is testament to his charisma and ability to steal whole movies.

Men in Black (1997)

The Nineties was the era of the high-concept mega franchise, and Men in Black was the high-concept-iest, mega-est of them all. Smith starred alongside an admirably poker-faced Tommy Lee Jones in this comic-book adaptation about a cop who finds himself battling covert extraterrestrials as part of a secret government operation. Director Barry Sonnenfeld perfectly balances thrills and laughs, and keeps the pace brisk, while Smith’s irresistible Agent Jay is perfectly paired with Jones’s Agent Kay (Jones later claimed that the key to the movie’s success was that he had “absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever”.) Two sequels followed and there’s another in the pipeline.

Enemy of the State (1998)

Tony Scott’s paranoid thriller, centred around the emerging hot-button topic of electronic state surveillance, put Smith on screen with two legendary Hollywood talents from a previous era: Gene Hackman and Jon Voight, and he more than holds his own in the thesping department against either as a lawyer who accidentally comes into possession of evidence of a political conspiracy. As with all of Scott’s movies, the director’s style, zippy cutting and restless camerawork is to the fore, but it’s Smith’s performance, as a man who has the whole technological might of the intelligence community ranged against him, that provides the vital human anchor.

Ali (2001)

The role of the world’s greatest heavyweight boxer would give any actor pause, not least because Muhammad Ali was almost as much a theatrical creation as a pugilistic one. But despite initial misgivings about playing one of the century’s greatest black icons (“I absolutely, positively did not want to be the dude that messed up the Muhammad Ali story,” he said at the time) Smith took the role and delivered a performance that perfectly captured Ali’s fast-talking, expansive braggadocio but also channelled an unexpectedly gentle, almost mythic quality to the character, bagging both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best actor in the process.

Concussion is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 12 February 2016.