“Emancipation,” Will Smith’s first film since winning the Oscar for “King Richard,” and the ugly way that night went, is a real take-stock moment.
For Will Smith, certainly. But for critics and the audience as well.
His entire career, Smith has coasted on limited acting range, a gift for comedy, his choice of plum blockbuster roles and a cheerful charm that made whatever he couldn’t deliver on the screen less a problem and more of a simple character quirk.
Sure, a big movie star but middling actor could crave an Oscar so badly that he was quick to try his hand at material that he wasn’t able to make work — “Collateral Beauty,” “Concussion,” “Seven Pounds.” Nicole Kidman coveted Oscar glory, as did Jessica Chastain, to name two recent examples. It can seem a little unseemly, but nothing more than that.
But take away the “good guy” image that Smith’s theatrical tantrum punctured and we’re staring down the simple superficialities of most every performance, and are a whole lot less forgiving of them. As an escaped slave stoically and doggedly running from hunters in Civil War Louisiana, The Shortcomings of Actor Will Smith are on full display.
Action auteur Antoine Fuqua, of “Training Day,” “The Equalizer” and “Olympus has Fallen,” keeps a gritty on-the-run narrative moving for much of this monochromatic and melodramatic thriller’s two hours and thirteen minutes. But there’s only so much he can do for a leading man who settles on an expression he plans to wear all the way through each dramatic movie, and rarely breaks it.
Peter (Smith) speaks in the Haitian/French patois of Civil War Louisiana as he washes his wife’s (Charmaine Bingwa) feet and intones “De lord eez wiss me,” to his children, urging them to be strong, and pleading with his wife to “stay together.” This is his leave taking. He’s being sent away.
“I will come back to you!”
Peter is then yanked out of the house by armed and waiting white men. He has been “requisitioned,” we learn, from the plantation owner (Barry Pepper), who delivers this “inspired by a true story’s” first factual error. He complains about the soldiers taking his “best blacksmith” under orders from “General Beale.”
General Beale was a Virginian, and never served in Louisiana.
Peter’s new life is a plunge into Dante’s Inferno, a hellish holocaust of wanton slaughter — runaways’ heads on pikes — and brutality, repairing a railroad.
But it’s 1863, and Peter overhears a Confederate tell a fellow soldier that a “gettin’ desperate” President “Lincoln freed the slaves.”
With the Union Army rumored to be in Baton Rouge, Peter resolves to escape, and in a burst of impulsive violence, he does, with many other slaves scattering. But the slave hunter Fassel (Ben Foster, sinister as ever) always gets his “boy.” He kept a soldier from shooting Peter earlier, and feels especially irked that this slave of all slaves made a break for it.
“You walk this Earth because I let you. You’re MAH dawg, now.”
The Bill Collage script takes us through an on-the-run slave’s odyssey of Louisiana — alligators to fear and fight, scenes of death and destruction all around and tone-deaf homey “sharing around the campfire” moments with our slave hunter and his mates.
The dialogue is creaky and crackling with cornpone. But “Emancipation” is about Peter’s physical and emotional struggle — against dogs, gators, injury (a little action hero self-surgery), memories of his family and the vague hope that he’s running and swimming in the right direction, that there is an army and salvation just ahead.
It’s a noble subject to take on and Fuqua keeps the picture moving between the familiar waypoints on the On-the-Lam-in-the-Swamp formula. But the third act lapses into “How do we get to the ending we have in mind?” drawn out clumsiness.
Smith? He’s wooden, scowling, determined and dogged. He brings little to the picture beyond that, overplaying Peter’s piety, going full ham when Peter lashes out at the men who have come to take him away from his family.
“Emancipation” is a decent enough slave-escape thriller, but one can’t help but wince at its lead performance and the clunky dialogue and cliched scenes that bring it to a stop, time and again. And as we’re taking in Smith’s return-to-overreaching pre-“King Richard” acting form, one can’t help but wish the far more skilled and talented Chiwitel Ejiofor had taken home an Oscar for his moving, thrilling turn in the far better “Twelve Years a Slave.” But he didn’t get the “what a nice guy” vote, apparently.
Rating: R for strong racial violence, disturbing images and language
Cast: Will Smith, Ben Foster, Charmaine Bingwa, Gilbert Owuor and Barry Pepper.
Credits: Directed by Antoine Fuqua, scripted by Bill Collage. An Apple TV+ release.
Running time: 2:13