5. Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000)
Like the film itself, Jackson’s performance in Shyamalan’s fourth feature is extremely somber, quiet and subdued. Jackson is nearly unrecognizable as Elijah Price starring opposite Bruce Willis’ David Dunn. Sporting a skew wiff afro and confined to a wheelchair, Price is a comic book fanatic with a rare bone affliction causing him to be known as the “Glass Man”.
Price comes across Dunn who has just emerged from a horrific train crash as the sole survivor. Dunn begins to discover unusual qualities about himself in the aftermath of the accident and the pair begin to suspect they may be polar opposites.
This might be Shyamalan’s best work and is certainly his most visually accomplished featuring some exceptional framing work and fly on the wall cinematography. By far one of his more chameleonic roles, Jackson is simply terrific as Price and strikes an unnerving figure onscreen. His presence is utterly palpable.
4. Die Hard: With A Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)
With the third Die Hard film, the producers went the route of the mismatched buddy cop flick casting Jackson in essentially the Danny Glover role. Infinitely superior to Die Hard 2, the premise is incredibly fun and suspenseful. The pair must race against the clock around New York City at the behest of mysterious villain “Simon” (Jeremy Irons).
Right from the genius opening setup Jackson gets some terrific dialogue to work with and he delivers it with relish. “Yeah, Zeus! As in father of Apollo? Mt Olympus? Don’t fuck with me or i’ll shove a lightning bolt up your ass”. I mean, i ask you? How can you lose with that combo?
3. Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996)
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s full length debut, Jackson plays a small time hustler Jimmy who befriends John (John C. Reilly) himself having been fortuitously taken under Sydney’s (Philip Baker Hall) wing after losing all his money and ending up stranded at a deserted diner in Reno.
Anderson had to fight with producers over final cut which he eventually got though he had to concede his preferred title of “Sydney”. Jackson is great in the supporting role of Jimmy who we know from the first moment we see him is bad news. He ultimately throws a spanner in the works of John and Sydney’s father & son style relationship with a dark secret that is essentially the crux of the film.
2. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)
Jackie Brown has a real beating heart at its core that some of Tarantino’s other films often lack. At once a nod to blaxploitation flicks of the early 70s and a gritty character piece, Jackie Brown contains a standout performance from Quentin regular Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson stars as sleazy gunrunner Ordell Robbie who crosses paths with the titular Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) and bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). This sets in motion a fairly labyrinthine caper plot involving multiple money drops/exchanges and numerous double crosses.
Jackson delivers an excellent performance and is far more understated and relaxed here than his character in Pulp Fiction. While it can sometimes be lost amongst the director’s oeuvre, Jackie Brown is easily one of Jackson’s best and perhaps Quentin Tarantino’s finest hour.
1. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
I won’t spend too much time on this one, it’s a no-brainer and as much as I wanted to be contrary and put something else on top I just couldn’t do it. You’re not even able to hear Samuel L. Jackson’s name or “Jules” or Pulp Fiction without instantly getting lines of dialogue stuck in your head.
Much of the credit may lie with Tarantino’s writing and direction, but Jackson is so perfectly cast as Winnfield and delivers his monologues and retorts with such force and authority, it’s simply undeniable. Even though he’s part of a huge ensemble effort, Jackson stands out head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. The role that simultaneously jump-started and defined his career.
Author Bio: James Casey is a freelance film/music writer living in Melbourne, Australia. Originally from New Zealand he is nearly as fanatical about film as he is about music and skateboarding. You can see more of his writing at cutprintfilm.com and thecraftpresents.com.