When you think of Samuel L. Jackson, what do you think of? When I think about him, my brain tends to go to where I remember first seeing him, namely as Stacks, the low-level criminal from GoodFellas who has one of those famous “misunderstandings” with Joe Pesci’s psychotic gangster. For most people, however, the first thought is of Jules Winnfield, the hitman with the carefully groomed Jheri curl who works alongside Vincent Vega for Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, and probably skip directly to his “great vengeance and furious anger” speech. There’s a good reason for that, and not just because Pulp Fiction is, well, Pulp Fiction, but because “great vengeance and furious anger” has always been what Jackson does so well. He rarely broods, preferring explosive, unrelenting torrents of roused disbelief and fury, belted out with urgency and end-of-the-rope exhaustion. The varied, near-musical timbre of his delivery teases out emotional undercurrents and humor in the dialogue that otherwise would have been diluted or simply absent from the film.
Jackson’s early collaborations with Spike Lee, still one of the greatest American directors to be working fruitfully today, allowed the performer to hone his preternatural sense for conveying impassioned acrimony and desperation, especially in Jungle Fever and the oft-overlooked, excellent Mo’ Better Blues. His subsequent supporting turns in GoodFellas, Patriot Games, Jurassic Park, Menace II Society, and True Romance expanded his range exponentially, allowing him to build the scalpel-sharp comic timing that helped him to co-lead both Amos & Andrew and Loaded Weapon with such assured delivery and unbound physicality. Of course, it was Pulp Fiction that rightly solidified the actor’s relationship with Quentin Tarantino and opened the gates to more mainstream work and some far more challenging roles.
Since then, he’s been working consistently, even vigorously, and his potency has rarely declined, whether in goofy B-movie fare like Deep Blue Sea and Snakes on a Plane or providing the voice of Frozone in Brad Bird’s beloved The Incredibles. When his ambition and love for visual detail are called upon, Jackson is simply an incomparably galvanic presence, and those are the performances that remind you he stole scenes regularly from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, and Geena Davis. And with his new film, Big Game, opening in theaters and VOD on June 26th, we decided to take a look back at Samuel L. Jackson’s most noteworthy performances over the years, in everything from controversial neo-Western revenge tales to big-budget franchise volumes enlivened by his uniquely enthralling attitude.