Just like many kids of the ’90s, the first time I truly noticed Samuel L. Jackson as the acting powerhouse and all around bastion of badassery was when he took a bite out of Brett’s burger before delivering, with great vengeance and furious anger, one of cinema’s most iconic monologues. As much of a star-making turn as Jackson’s amateur monk/hit man in Pulp Fiction was, I gradually realized at the time that his genius has been brewing in many a supporting or even background role for pretty much a decade up to that point. He was the smooth-talking voice of reason DJ in Do the Right Thing, the tragic crackhead brother in Jungle Fever—even in a bit part as a robber in Coming to America he managed to make this mark.
Since Pulp Fiction, Jackson has been a staple of pop culture: He’s the consummate definition of a versatile actor, delivering countless different types of characters with incredible attention to detail and work ethic. Not only is he the go-to guy when you need a quick injection of effortless charisma into your blockbuster, but he’s proven himself to be invaluable when it comes to subtle and delicate dramatic performances as well.
He’s such an important part of our lives—every baby born after the mid-’90s has to learn speech, gross motor skills and Samuel L. Jackson quotes to survive in this world. So we thought, with the upcoming release of the Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds vehicle The Hitman’s Bodyguard, we’d revisit the best performances of this great actor and greater employer of curse words. As you might guess, there are a lot of memorable Samuel L. Jackson performances from which to choose. Hell, the man currently has a whopping 175 acting credits on IMDB. It’s hard to pick just ten when it comes to the purple lightsaber master.
So hold onto your butts, here are the 10 best Samuel L. Jackson performances:
As Zeus, the no-nonsense Harlem storeowner forced to join hardcore detective and unluckiest person alive, John McClane (Bruce Willis), on a deadly scavenger hunt across New York City, Jackson brings new energy to a franchise that was already on the verge of becoming stale. If you’re uncertain as to how important it is to pick the right second banana with enough natural presence to boost Willis’s one-liner machine, consider: Jai Courtney in A Good Day to Die Hard. Not only does Jackson perfectly balance a well-needed dose of calm with some intense energy, he also delivers one of the best lines of his career: “Don’t fuck with me or I’ll shove a lightning bolt up your ass!”
Señor Love Daddy, the smooth and friendly neighborhood DJ in Spike Lee’s still painfully relevant masterpiece about American race relations, works as a Greek chorus to the ever-rising tension that takes place during the hottest day of the summer in 1989. The film opens with a jarring call to the audience to “Wake up!” and recognize the racial inequality and oppression that exists all around them, and ends with a solemn request for solidarity and peace. Jackson puts so much depth and character in the relatively small role, that this character is still, to get personal for a moment, such an important part of my life that I imagine Señor Love Daddy still filling the airwaves with silky tunes and the occasional Public Enemy track dedicated to the memory of Radio Raheem (RIP Bill Nunn).
“AK-47! The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively, got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes,” boasts cocky gangster Ordell Robbie in what is easily Tarantino’s most underrated film. It was clear from Pulp Fiction that Tarantino had found his muse in Jackson, but it was their second collaboration that really solidified their bond. There were so many ways this character, the chief antagonist to Pam Grier’s slick and smart flight attendant, could have gone horribly wrong. On paper and upon first look, he comes across as a spoof of a blacksploitation cliché. Yet while Jackson effortlessly delivers those cocksure Tarantino lines with expected gusto, he gradually adds layers to Ordell Robbie, revealing the inherent insecurity and fear hiding under his insatiable ego. By the time he’s cornered in the third act, Robbie is a psychopath who earns your pity.
Writer/director Kasi Lemmons’ tender, bold and vastly underrated drama gave Jackson a chance to shine with an atypically subtle character. In Eve’s Bayou he plays a respected doctor in Louisiana who’s accused by his daughter (Jurnee Smollett) of not only cheating on her mother, but of something far more despicable. Lemmons expertly strips all possibly lazy melodramatic moves from her emotionally charged story in order to get to barer truth, and Jackson steps up to the plate to deliver one of his best dramatic performances. This character could have easily turned into a one-dimensional Lifetime Channel villain, but Jackson digs always deeper to make sure that we get a lot more than that.
Jackson’s hilarious turn as the eccentric (correction: batshit crazy) tech magnate with a “final solution” to global warming showcases how much fun he can have on screen. As powerful and dangerous as he is, Jackson’s Valentine comes across as a petulant child with a dipshit skater’s fashion sense, an aversion to violence (even though his goal is wipe out 99.9% percent of Earth’s population) and a pronounced lisp that makes him sound exactly like the larger-than-life bad guy he’s supposed to be, perfectly fitting the hard-R-rated Saturday morning cartoon tone of Kingsman. The sequel’s villain has a lot to live up to.
In another uncharacteristically melancholic and subtle performance by Jackson, he plays Doyle Gibson, an alcoholic divorcée whose already chaotic world turns upside down after an unfortunate car accident makes him late for his kids’ custody hearing. Jackson is able to craft a believably tragic figure in Roger Michell’s thoughtful drama about the kind of casual racism that people of color experience every day. Jackson’s mournful yet ultimately empowering monologue about Gipson’s ideal Tiger Woods commercial perfectly encapsulates the bitter love-hate dynamic at the core of the film.
The first thing that comes to everyone’s mind is Jackson screaming with trademark fury, “Yes they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in hell!” As iconic as that moment is in Jackson’s filmography, the transcendent way he communicates the unbearable pain and anger of a father whose daughter was brutally raped (by a group of Klan members, no less) transforms an otherwise mediocre John Grisham adaptation, amongst many, as one of the most memorable courtroom thrillers of the 1990s.
A performance so good, the Cannes Film Festival created a Best Supporting Actor Award specifically to honor Jackson’s haunting turn as the protagonist’s (Wesley Snipes) crackhead brother. Jackson used his own struggles with drug addiction to bring a stunning level of realism to Gator, once again serving as the only memorable part in an otherwise flawed and fairly forgettable film. Spike Lee’s study of interracial relationships tries to cram too many themes into its already bloated runtime, but the heartbreaking push-and-pull between Gator and his parents (Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis), which culminates in a tragic climax, is the one narrative element that Lee develops to its utmost potential. We have Jackson’s fearless dive into the character to thank for that.
(Note: Spoilers for this 17-year-old film follow.) The fact that Jackson’s Elijah Price is a relatively grounded supervillain amongst comic book movie tropes is of course by design, thanks to M. Night Shyamalan’s (at the time) unique approach to the genre, but it also shouldn’t stop this character from taking his rightful place next to some of the most famous nemeses of all time. Unbreakable builds a formidable hero out of Bruce Willis’s seemingly indestructible protagonist, but a hero is only as good as his villain—which is where Jackson’s calm and calculated comic book art dealer comes into play, whose sadness hiding underneath a meticulously sustained veneer of emotional detachment gives depth to a character who otherwise might have ended up as a parody of such a personality. This role is a prime example of Jackson’s ability to communicate formidable intensity without saying a single word.
What other role could have possibly taken the top spot? Twenty-three years later, there are two indisputable facts about Tarantino’s game changer: It influenced more filmmakers and film students than any other movie of its generation, and every frame in which Samuel L. Jackson’s gangster-going-through-spiritual-enlightenment character appears is an absolute delight. In or out of context, Jules is one of those iconic characters who’s immediately entertaining and captivating. Did Jules eventually learn how to be the shepherd? It’s hard to tell, but with the sheer amount of indelible roles he’s filled, Samuel L. Jackson seems to be committed to answering that for himself.