Samuel L. Jackson's 10 Greatest Performances, Ranked
By Kevin Wong on
Samuel L. Jackson is one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood. There are some actors like Daniel Day-Lewis who work seldomly; they take on so few projects that their movies are years apart from one another.
Actors like Jackson do the opposite. Since his film debut in 1972, Jackson has performed in over 100 films and counting. And although many of roles are bit parts, a great deal of them are major supporting roles and leads. In 2011, the Guinness Book of World Records announced that Jackson was the highest grossing actor of all-time, combined, his movies have made over $7.4 billion.
Despite his prolificness, Jackson has a discriminating eye for what his audiences will love. Plus, he can curse like no one else. Hold onto your butts, here are Samuel L. Jackson's 10 greatest performances, ranked.
10. Ken Carter
Movie: Coach Carter
Director: Thomas Carter
There are so many "inspirational coach" movies that they get predictable. But Coach Carter is a great example of formula done properly. Jackson plays the lead; his character based on the true story of Ken Carter, who prioritized his students' academic success over athletics, even when it meant benching them.
9. Abel Turner
Movie: Lakeview Terrace
Director: Neil LaBute
A low-art, mean-spirited film, Lakeview Terrace is about an interracial couple that moves to a new neighborhood and the corrupt cop neighbor, played by Jackson, who terrorizes them. Jackson relishes this role in all its vindictiveness and spite, whether he's breaking the rulebook while disarming a suspect or taking a chainsaw to his neighbor's trees. Watch this for some guilty, dark-humored pleasure.
8. Nick Fury
Movie: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Director: The Russo Brothers
Samuel L. Jackson gets to show off his action star chops in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the grittiest, most down-to-earth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He's in multiple Marvel films—eight, thus far—and he is visually confirmed to be in Spider-Man: Far From Home via the trailer. But his Winter Soldier performance is, by far, the best of them. The assassination attempt on Nick Fury is masterfully done—a perfect blend of CGI and practical effects, which gives the vehicles and crashes some much-needed weight. And Jackson is all grimace and bile, shooting down Hydra operatives with his one good eye.
7. Ordell Robbie
Movie: Jackie Brown
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson have a special director/actor relationship, like Scorsese and DeNiro. No one says Tarantino's crude, endlessly clever dialogue better than Jackson. Three of Tarantino's films make this list, the first of which is Jackie Brown. Tarantino wrote Ordell as an unrepentant selfish scumbag—a villain who's not as smart as he thinks he is but is also more dangerous than his enemies give him credit for--and Jackson flawlessly brought him to life.
6. Carl Lee Hailey
Movie: A Time To Kill
Director: Joel Schumacher
Jackson plays a man on trial for the crime of killing the men who raped, beat, and nearly killed his 10-year-old daughter. Jackson puts on a performance filled with emotion and dignity, and the moments where his voice rises to anger are all the more impactful for it. The movie's iconic line, where Jackson yells from the witness box, "Yes they deserved to die and I hope they burn in hell!" is right up there with the best of them.
5. Mitch Henessey
Movie: The Long Kiss Goodnight
Director: Renny Harlin
It might not be your favorite Samuel L. Jackson film, but it is his. This action movie, starring Jackson alongside Geena Davis, is the actor's favorite performance to watch of himself. Davis plays a woman with amnesia who discovers that she has lethal CIA-esque skills (think Jason Bourne), and Jackson plays an investigator who she hired to find out why.
4. "Gator" Purify
Movie: Jungle Fever
Director: Spike Lee
To play the role of horrible brother and crack addict "Gator" Purify, Jackson delved into his personal life; he had just gotten out of rehab for addiction to the drug, weeks before taking on the role. And he imbues what could have been a stock character with sympathy and soul. There's a reason this is his breakout movie role.
Movie: Django Unchained
Director: Quentin Tarantino
A despicable, sadistic man, house slave Stephen is the true brains behind Candieland, a nightmarish plantation in Tarantino's pre-Civil War South. While his degenerate master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) busies himself with slave fighting for sport, Stephen is the one writing the checks and keeping the other slaves in line. This was the sort of role that was too twisted and too subversive to get mainstream recognition, even during awards season. But it remains one of Jackson's greatest accomplishments, a villain filled with venom, self-loathing, and a mean-spirited wit.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Unbreakable was ahead of its time— a dark realistic superhero tale about a man (Bruce Willis) who doesn't know he has superhuman strength. But then, he survives a catastrophic train wreck, and he is mentored and guided by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book store owner with brittle bones and an eccentric, tragic vision. This is the type of character work Jackson is capable of when he's forced out of his comfort zone, and you'll be able to see this character front and center on January 18, 2019, when Glass, the second sequel to Unbreakable, debuts in theaters.
1. Jules Winnfield
Movie: Pulp Fiction
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino's Big-Kahuna-burger-loving, bible-quoting hitman was originally supposed to have an afro. But the PA that Tarantino sent to get the wig didn't know the difference between an afro and Jheri curl, and the rest is history. Funny, eloquent, and so cool he has the words "BAD MOTHERF***ER embroidered onto his wallet, Jules is Tarantino's greatest creation and Jackson's greatest performance. Effortless badassery and pathos all rolled into one, Jules netted Jackson an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1995—the only one in his decorated career.