Saturday, December 7, 2013

Top 5 Samuel L. Jackson Performances

Samuel L. Jackson is huge. An actor with one of the highest total box office grosses ever, with numerous credits spread out over film, television, stage. He’s Samuel L. Jackson, the intimidator, the screamer, the enforcer. He’s such an iconic persona, that we often forget that the man really, truly, can act. Here are my favorite examples of Jackson’s talent, of which there are certainly more than five. So do feel free to list your favorites after you check out mine!

5. Unbreakable (2000)
The smartest thing M. Night Shyamalan has ever done was make his masterful film, Unbreakable, a two-hander. Instead of just focusing on the main hero (played by Bruce Willis), Shyamalan gives equal time to the hero’s physical antithesis, Elijah Price. This is a wise move on Shyamalan’s part, as Price is the far more interesting character, and played to utter perfection by Jackson. When I think of Samuel L. Jackson, my mind immediately paints an image of a strong, ferocious, determined, screaming man. The beauty of Price is the understatement Jackson brings to the role. Sure, Price is decked out in flashy threads and sports a unique hairstyle, but the man’s charm is in the conviction of his whisper. We never know if we can trust Elijah Price, but we, like the Willis character, have no choice but to follow him.

4. A Time to Kill (1996)

The single best scene of Samuel L. Jackson’s career is the moment he surrenders himself to the law in A Time to Kill. After murdering the two men who raped and nearly beat his daughter to death, Jackson’s Carl Lee Hailey doesn’t go on the run. He doesn’t hide out and seek refuge. Instead, he simply goes home. He goes home, sits with his family, and waits. The town Sheriff soon arrives and finds Carl Lee waiting passively on his front porch. Carl Lee calmly says goodbye to his family, walks down his steps, and slowly approaches the Sheriff. Watch Jackson do this walk. I mean, really fucking watch him. There’s so much going on in his face – guilt, shame, pride, determination, justice – it’s really quite a startling achievement. 

3. Jungle Fever (1991)

A few months after Jackson got clean from alcohol and crack, his good friend Spike Lee offered him the role that would change his life: as an alcoholic crackhead willing to do anything for his next fix. Given Jackson’s current (and one might guess, delicate) state at the time of Jungle Fever was filmed, it would’ve be easy for him to hold back on his character, Gator. Instead, Jackson delivers one of the most haunting and realistic depictions of drug addiction that I’ve ever seen. Gator’s final confrontation with his na├»ve mother (Rudy Dee) and vengeful father (Ossie Davis) is one of the finest, most intense scenes of all three actors’ careers.

2. Pulp Fiction (1994)

If there was an actor born to speak the words of Quentin Tarantino, then Samuel L. Jackson certainly is it. In fact, long after we’re all gone, Jules Winnfield could very well be remembered as Jackson’s most iconic role. The fire and brimstone, the flawed morality, the discreet humor – everything that comes out of Jackson’s mouth is pure gold. There are many things that set Jules apart in the world of Pulp Fiction, but one of the most striking is the lack of physicality demanded for the role. Most every other character in the film is required to do something shocking with their body. Jackson’s job is to stand (or sit) in the middle of a room and let the words fly. Job damn well done.

1. Jackie Brown (1997)

Every last detail about Ordell Robbie feels wildly authentic. The rat tail goatee, the relaxed wardrobe, the confident stride, the screwdrivers – every external factor blends perfectly to create one of Tarantino’s most vivid characters. But, of course, there’s just as much going on inside as out. Whether Ordell is dishing out a lavish story in order to get a poor bastard in the trunk of his car, or gracefully placing his hands around the throat of his friend, or taking a moment to stare off and figure out how he’s been deceived so exquisitely, every choice Jackson made as Ordell worked seamlessly to bring this scumbag to life. I can watch and listen to Jackson inhabit Ordell repeatedly, knowing all well that no one could do what he did with the character. Except no substitutes. 

26 comments:

  1. His role was much bigger in Jackie Brown, and he gave a flawless performance... but it will always seem inferior to his role in Pulp Fiction to me. I can't give you a proper reason for it though, that's just how it is with me. Great list! All great performances. I'd have Django Unchained on there somewhere personally :)

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    1. Such a tough call to choose between his Pulp and Jackie performances. Pulp Fiction is by far my favorite film of the two, but I really think SLJ's entire performance is slightly superior in Jackie. Django was number 6! I loved him in that.

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  2. Shit, that is a fucking great list. I ain't arguing w/ these choices. This list is perfect.

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    1. Thanks man! So cool that you dig all the picks.

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  3. "I LIKE TO YELL. THAT'S JUST HOW I TALK!!" - Okay, so that was Chapelle as Jackson, but I seriously love this list. Pulp Fiction is my all time favorite performance of his.

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    1. Haha thanks! I love Jules. What a great character he is.

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  4. No Die Hard with a Vengeance? Seriously, your #1 is dead on, and it's hard to argue with any of the picks. The first one that came to mind for me was Jungle Fever since it's one of his earlier roles that got attention, but all of these are really strong.

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    1. I was this close to naming Die Hard with a Vengeance as an honorable mention, because I think it is a really solid performance in a really solid action movie. "You can shove your well laid plan up your well laid ass." Love it.

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  5. What about those Capital One commercials? I figured they would at least get an honorable mention! ha

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  6. Hard to argue with your choices. Glad to see his work in "Unbreakable" get some love. Like you said, there are many more than five great performances from the man. Five more movies in which I thought he was just great (in no particular order): Black Snake Moan, Django Unchained, Fresh, Juice, and Resurrecting the Champ.

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    1. Thanks man, glad you dig the picks. Resurrecting the Champ, like most all of Rod Lurie's films, is one that never got the fair amount of attention it deserved. I really liked Jackson's work in that.

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  7. I would definitely have had Eve's Bayou on the list. It was quite a departure for him, but he nailed it. I also thought he blew away DiCaprio in Django Unchained. It's good to see Unbreakable on here. I actually liked that one more than The Sixth Sense because I figured out the latter, but Unbreakable blindsided me.

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    1. Eve's Bayou came in at number 7. Jackson's work is superb in that film. And Django... wow, so powerful. I too like Unbreakable more than The Sixth Sense, by far my favorite Shyamalan film.

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  8. Great post, he was so bad ass in Pulp Fiction.

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  9. I just happened to watch A Time To Kill again over the weekend, it delivers for me every time. Glad to see it make the top five because he brings such a quiet, hurting dignity to cover up his rage. Apart from "yes they deserve to die..." there is nothing showy about the performance at all.

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    1. So glad to hear you're a fan of that one. "...brings such a quiet, hurting dignity to cover up his rage." I couldn't of said it better myself. That's a perfect way to put it.

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  10. This is yet another great list and you are correct that no one does Tarantino dialog quite like SLJ and I couldn't agree more with your top 3. I really need to watch Time to Kill again, I haven't seen that one in ages. I think the one thing that's missing from this list is the pure cheesecake that he appears to make his bread and butter with and as much as I hate to admit it - I'd have to say Snakes On a Plane. Seriously stupid and dumb but man if I don't laugh my ass off with how over the top it is. "I've had it with these motherfuckin' snakes off of this motherfuckin' plane!" Doesn't really get much better than that besides Tarantino films.

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    1. Thanks man! Dude, Snakes is a great choice for exactly the reason you mentioned. Jackson knows precisely what he's doing in that film, and he has done a solid job of capitalizing on that persona for decades. I can't say I like all of his characters, but I can't hate on a man for making it his own, you know?

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  11. Graat to see Jackie Brown on number 1 here, his performance there is so fantastic! i loved him playing against the type in Unbreakable, he was wonderful there and it's such an underrated movie.

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    1. I just rewatched Unbreakable last night, and yeah... wow. He's so good in that film. I really love that movie in general though. Such a confident, unique piece of filmmaking.

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  12. Just saw Jackie Brown for the first time a few days ago (I know, I'm terrible), and I'd have to put that role as my #1 spot too! Every scene he was in was hilarious...and the dialogue delivered so effortlessly! His reaction to De Niro after finding out Fonda had been shot was hysterical!!!

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    1. Hey, at least you watched it! Better late than never. I'm so glad you enjoyed his work in it. I love that scene too: "You couldn't just slap her or somethin'!?!?!"

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  13. ORDELL ROBBIE!!! No contest. Excellent list man.

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