Samuel L Jackson’s 20 best films – ranked!

Soon to be seen in The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, the actor has a CV taking in dancing losers, choric narrators, a Bible-misquoting killer – and Marvel’s coolest middleman

20. Chi-Raq (2015)

Samuel L Jackson is the elegantly besuited, cane-twirling, fourth-wall-breaking narrator in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (pronounced “shy-rack”), set in the city of Chicago, where the homicide rate has exceeded the US death toll in Iraq. It is a twist on Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, about one woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian war with a sex strike. Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata, the girlfriend of a gangbanger. She reaches out to the wives and partners of their enemies with a similar idea – and the chant: “No peace, no pussy!” Jackson is the dapper, impish Dolmedes, whose rhyming couplets bring us into the story.

19. One Eight Seven (1997)

So often, Jackson’s roles are flavoured by violence or cynicism or black comedy, but there is a strong streak of idealism in his performing identity. So it proves in this social-issue thriller named after the California police code for homicide. Jackson plays Trevor, a dedicated teacher who works in a tough New York school, survives a horrendous stabbing by a pupil and winds up as a substitute teacher in Los Angeles. There, his personality appears changed: he is more grimly determined to survive. That determination takes the movie to melodramatic places, but Jackson’s performance is muscular and forthright.

18. Goodfellas (1990)

Jackson is often regarded as quite the snappy dresser, but sadly there was nothing snappy about the way he dressed for his big cameo in Martin Scorsese’s celebrated gangster film – in loose vest and underpants. He plays minor hoodlum “Stacks” Edwards, who had, as they say, one job. For the Lufthansa robbery run by Henry (Ray Liotta) and Jimmy the Gent (Robert De Niro), Stacks was entrusted with getting rid of the van. He neglected to do so, rendering himself vulnerable to arrest and likely to squeal. So Stacks is roused from a lie-in at 11.30am by Joe Pesci’s psychopathic Tommy DeVito; Stacks stumbles apologetically to the door in his underwear and then – incautiously – turns his back on Tommy as he bends to put his clothes on. With the sickening gunshot, Jackson lurches forward, bounces off the bed and hits the floor.

17. Jurassic Park (1993)

“Hold on to your butts!” Jackson has another celebrated cameo as Ray Arnold, the droll engineer in charge of Jurassic Park’s automated rides. His famous line is uttered when he has to shut everything down and start it up again when a hurricane strikes, dinosaurs are at large and the park’s systems have been sabotaged by Wayne Knight’s slobbish and corrupt programmer, Dennis Nedry. Tragically, Ray is to meet a horrible off-camera demise, gobbled by a velociraptor, leaving only his arm. Jackson gives an object lesson in how to make the most of a small role; here, he is one of cinema’s most dedicated smokers, never seen without a cigarette.

Black Snake Moan
Blues power … Jackson with Christina Ricci in the curious Black Snake Moan. Photograph: Paramount/Allstar

16. Black Snake Moan (2006)

One of Jackson’s strangest and yet somehow most elegant performances, treasured by his fans. He is a farmer and retired blues musician significantly named Lazarus, who is dying of loneliness. One day, he finds a beautiful young woman called Rae, played by Christina Ricci, who has been beaten and left unconscious by the road by local folk, apparently as a punishment for her promiscuity. Lazarus takes her home and chains her to a radiator, while he tells her about his life and plays her some music – all avowedly to teach her some self-respect. Or is it his own self-respect he is trying to reclaim? This is part southern gothic, part Euro arthouse and all Jackson. No one else could have sold us this bizarre premise.

15. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)

The third Die Hard movie featuring the tough cop John McClane, this paired Jackson with Bruce Willis for a scary confrontation with another creepy German villain played by a Brit thesp. Jeremy Irons is Simon, the brother of the German played by Alan Rickman whom Willis was up against in the first film. Crazy-evil genius Simon places bombs all over Manhattan and forces Willis to stand in the middle of Harlem wearing a racist placard or else he will detonate one. Jackson is Zeus, the tough store-owner who saves McClane from the inevitable angry mob and senses that that this shirtless man is on the side of the angels. Together, they are drawn into Simon’s evil cat-and-mouse game. Jackson makes a very good ordinary guy turned action hero.

14. A Time to Kill (1996)

A grandstanding performance here from Jackson in this John Grisham legal thriller set in the US south. He plays Carl Lee Hailey, the regular guy whose 10-year-old daughter is raped by two racist thugs. Hailey guns down the culprits while they are on their way to a hearing, spraying them with bullets, and in doing so gravely injures a nearby white deputy played by Chris Cooper, who sympathises with him. Matthew McConaughey plays the liberal lawyer who takes Hailey’s side. But, as Hailey tells him: “America is at war and you are on the other side.” He has chosen him as his lawyer precisely because he is a white man who thinks as a white jury thinks. It is a big sweaty movie with big sweaty scenes and Jackson has the gravitas and credibility to carry it.

13. The Hateful Eight (2015)

Quentin Tarantino’s movie is a chamber piece, set mostly in a confined space and featuring intimidating guys adept in the implied violence of talk. It is set just after the civil war, among bounty hunters who bring in wanted felons, dead or alive. One of these is the unionist veteran Major Marquis Warren, sumptuously played by Jackson, who has a couple of criminal corpses that he is transporting across country in the snow. Warren has an unhappy war record, but Jackson shows how deeply proud he is of having a letter from Abraham Lincoln. This is an outrageous, blackly comic performance of the type that only Tarantino knows how to get from Jackson: glittering of eye, steely of will and vengeful of manner.

12. Changing Lanes (2002)

If there is one emotion Jackson can convey on screen, it is rage – and that is what he delivers in this Roger Michell drama, the title of which interestingly prefigures the “stay in your lane” jibe from many a social-media row. Ben Affleck plays Gavin, an obnoxious yuppie lawyer who gets into a fender-bender situation with Doyle, Jackson’s recovering alcoholic with anger-management problems. Both are on their way to a courtroom situation and pushed for time, but Affleck is high-handed and arrogant in ways that Jackson’s character can’t forgive. It all gets overheated, with a silly ending, but Jackson is compelling and charismatic.

Samuel L Jackson with Geena Davies in The Long Kiss Goodnight
Odd couple … With Geena Davies in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Photograph: New Line Cinema/Allstar

11. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Another of the big 90s action movies that featured Jackson paired with a white character, in this case the apparently respectable wife and mother Samantha, played by Geena Davis. She has built a happy life with her partner and child eight years after being found unconscious with no memory. But random events bring it all back: she used to be in a very dangerous occupation, some bad guys want to get her and the only person on her side is Mitch, the scuzzy private investigator she once hired. Jackson sells it hard, but it is not the part he was born for.

10. The Marvel Cinematic Universe

There had to be a part for Jackson in the MCU and it was Colonel Nick Fury, perennially coiled with eponymous rage and sporting a piratical eyepatch. As head of the espionage and counter-terrorism agency Shield, he is sufficiently badass to act as a credible intermediary between the Avengers and the US government. His appearances in the MCU range from tiny and sometimes uncredited cameos to medium-sized appearances; his best is in Captain Marvel, in which he plays the young Fury in the 90s, digitally de-aged; he shows how he suffered that unfortunate ocular mishap.

Jackson’s MCU roles, sub-ranked:

11. Thor (2011)
10. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
9. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
8. Iron Man (2008)
7. Captain America: the First Avenger (2011)
6. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
5. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
4. The Avengers (2012)
3. Iron Man 2 (2010)
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
1. Captain Marvel (2019)

9. Do the Right Thing (1989)

As with Chi-Raq, Lee gave Jackson a potent, choric role here: the quasi-narrator who floats free of the action. He is the charismatic local DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy, who broadcasts live to the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of New York. Jackson’s is the droll, detached yet engaged voice who somehow embodies the fact that the temperature is inexorably climbing and there is about to be racial violence. He conveys that there is something inevitable about it all, and also has a kind of Olympian view, seeing and calmly judging everything. It is the kind of part that Jackson endows with enigmatic humour and his own brand of wisdom.

Snakes on a Plane
Cabin fever … Jackson in the high-concept Snakes on a Plane. Photograph: New Line Cinema/Allstar

8. Snakes on a Plane (2006)

“I have had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!” Just one of the deathless lines in the high-concept thriller featuring Jackson as an FBI officer escorting a witness on a flight to Los Angeles, where his testimony could put away a gangster for life. But the gangster has somehow stashed a huge crate of angry snakes in the hold, with a timer device to blow the lid off. The snakes get into the cabin because a couple in the toilet rip out the smoke alarm, causing a hole, so they can skin up; one of the great moralist-symbolist scenes of 21st-century Hollywood. Soon the plane is crawling and slithering and the passengers have a Freudian nightmare on their hands. At the time, Snakes on a Plane was thought to be the future of cinema, because it crowdsourced its screenplay ideas at the development stage from online fans (or got huge publicity for claiming that it did). Jackson is the epitome of cool as he grabs a snake by the tail and whipcracks its head against an overhead cabin.

7. Jungle Fever (1991)

Jackson plays a mouthy crack addict called Gator in Lee’s film about the sexual politics of interracial romance. Gator does an intensely irritating little dance, which exasperates his character’s strait-laced brother Flipper, played by Wesley Snipes. When Flipper has an affair with a beautiful Italian-American co-worker, Angie, played by Annabella Sciorra, his marriage breaks down and he finds himself thrown as never before on the mercies of his disapproving family and out-of-control loser brother. Jackson took the part when he had just got out of rehab for crack addiction himself andfelt that he was in a unique position to show the addict’s desperate, delusional lifestyle.

Ordell Robbie Jackie Brown
Fully loaded … Jackson as gun-runner Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown. Photograph: Miramax/Allstar

6. Jackie Brown (1997)

Tarantino gives Jackson some tasty lines and there is scarcely anything lairier than the speech delivered by Jackson’s gun runner Ordell Robbie, while watching a video entitled Chicks Who Love Guns. “Here we go. AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes. This here’s the Chinese model. I get ’em for $850, double my money.” He is watching it on the couch with his buddy and former cellmate Louis Gara, played by De Niro, with whom he is later to have a very stressful conversation in their VW van. It is a conversation that ends with a chilling demonstration of violence and Ordell’s sorrowful remark: “What the fuck happened to you, man? Your ass used to be beautiful.”

5. The Incredibles (2004)

Jackson did some joyous voice work on this Pixar classic, playing Frozone, the best friend and ally of Mr Incredible, as both have to come to terms with the fact that “supers” are no longer needed in the modern US. His booming voice endowed another line with classic status: as a crime situation develops in the street, Frozone realises that he should deal with it as a super, but is aghast to see his suit isn’t where it should be. He shouts to his wife: “Honey, wheeeere’s my suuuupersuit?” and so becomes the voice of every suburban husband, super or not, in the US.

4. Unbreakable (2000)

Jackson gives one of his most eccentric performances in this early film from M Night Shyamalan. Willis plays David, a security guard who somehow emerges unscathed from a train crash that kills everybody else. It appears that he has the superpower of unbreakability, which attracts the attention of Elijah, a connoisseur comic-book dealer played by Jackson who has a genetic disorder that means the slightest impact will break his bones. He believes he is the polar opposite to David, that their destinies are fused and that David has to follow his vocation as a superhero. It is a great performance from Jackson: his angular presence shimmers with charismatic hauteur.

Django Unchained
Audacious and provocative … with Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained. Photograph: Allstar/The Weinstein Company

3. Django Unchained (2012)

Tarantino’s outrageously brash revenge western, set on a slave plantation in the antebellum US, features one of Jackson’s most brilliant and controversial performances. The revolting plantation owner, Calvin Candie, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio; Jamie Foxx is the rebellious slave Django; and Jackson plays Candie’s household servant Stephen, a satirical Uncle Tom figure with a bald head, a death-ray stare and a Parkinson’s-type tremor, who is fanatically loyal to the master and deeply suspicious of Django. In 2012, Hollywood was nervous about slavery in a way it isn’t now, but the character of Stephen would be audacious and provocative at any time.

2. Lakeview Terrace (2008)

Probably Jackson’s most underappreciated turn, in this disquieting drama from the screenwriters David Loughery and Howard Korder and the director Neil LaBute. A hip young couple, Lisa and Chris, played by Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson, move into a pleasant street and are instantly creeped out by their neighbour Abel, played by Jackson. He is a fiercely conservative LAPD cop and widower who runs his own one-man neighbourhood watch scheme and is bringing up two children with iron discipline. One day, Abel finds them giggling at an upstairs window and sees they are looking down at the neighbours having carefree sex in their pool. Disgusted by their licentiousness, and perhaps also that they are an interracial couple, he begins a campaign of harassment. When Jackson wants to turn the intimidation up to 11, there is no one more disturbing.

Pulp Fiction
‘And you will know my name is the Lord’ … Jackson’s star-making turn in Pulp Fiction. Photograph: Miramax/Allstar

1. Pulp Fiction (1994)

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children, and I will strike down upon thee, with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers and you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!” In the terrifying “Big Kahuna burger” scene from Pulp Fiction, Jackson’s extraordinary hitman, Jules, is citing the King James version of Ezekiel 25:17, but has evidently rewritten it, absorbing Psalm 23 and Genesis 4. (Generations of filmgoers think that it is a real quote, in the same way they think there really is a homoerotic line about “riding my tail” in Top Gun.)

Jules and Vincent (played by John Travolta) show up at the apartment of some kids who have attempted to doublecross their employer, Marsellus. Jules’s chilling capacity for violence is even more stunning given that we have so recently seen him gently bantering with his colleague about burgers, Europe and foot massages. Jules is a little vexed that the kid he is threatening with a gun easily guesses why the French call a quarter-pounder with cheese a “Royale”, when this question had stumped him. This quasi-biblical quote is also the climactic moment of the restaurant scene at the end, in which Jules coolly brazens out being held up by Tim Roth’s character, whom he calls “Ringo”, citing exactly the same text, but now saying that he may have misinterpreted it.

Jackson’s killer Jules is an amazing creation: super-cool, unfazed by anything, a pop-culture prophet and a seer, with a strange sense of the mystical and the sublime. Jackson was hardly a newcomer when he took the role, being 46 years old, with 28 film credits behind him. But Jules seemed to emerge fully formed: the magnificent, blackly comic antihero who shaped our perception of everything Jackson did afterwards or before; and the yardstick of deadpan crime cool that every tough guy had to measure himself against.

• The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard is in UK cinemas from 18 June.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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