Samuel L. Jackson’s latest video doesn’t stand up to ”Pulp Fiction”
Samuel L. Jackson has the prodigious talent to take any role he wants, but don’t expect to see him play Hamlet. That hesitant hero is just not Jackson’s style. Despite a career peopled with characters of all social classes, professions, and levels of sin, the actor’s creations all have one thing in common: their adamant air of purpose. A Jackson man is an action man — even when, as in The Negotiator, taking that action seems likely to destroy him.
In this police drama, directed by F. Gary Gray (Set It Off), Jackson plays Danny Roman, a daredevil hostage negotiator who always gets his man. But when his partner, who has sussed out an intradepartmental embezzlement scheme, is suddenly murdered, Roman is framed for both crimes. A normal man might hire a lawyer, run away, or break down in the privacy of his home. Not Roman. With typical Jacksonian resolve, he forces an investigation into the charges by taking some hostages of his own.
This renegade cop is relentless and foolhardy in his brush with self-destruction — just like the character that first brought Jackson wide acclaim: a crack addict in Spike Lee’s cautionary tale about interracial intercourse, Jungle Fever. Jackson gives an aggressive performance as the debauched Gator, a junkie who has no intention of changing his ways. ”I like getting high,” he declaims. ”I’m a crackhead.” Shucking and jiving to elicit more cash from his mother, Jackson’s Gator is too manic to feel humiliated. Even at the film’s horrifying climax, when a furiously panicky Gator ransacks his mother’s kitchen for drug money and is confronted by his pistol-packing father, he’s clench-jawed obdurate to the last.
On the other end of the gun, in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Jackson’s Jheri-Curled hitman Jules is a dervish of lethal force. In a heart-stoppingly fierce scene — the epitome, for many, of his performance — Jules paces and glowers at his terrified victim, quoting Ezekiel as if it were an assassin’s manifesto: ”And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!” When a spray of bullets misses him entirely, however, Jules hails it as a miracle and renounces his way of life. The conversion could have come off as a coward’s retreat; instead, Jackson plays it with such laid-back spiritual certainty that it’s believable.
In later films, Jackson has used his self-assurance in the service of characters with a wide variety of motives. But the actor never quite downshifts, which means the force of his performance can propel a picture — or leave character development and costars in the dust. In one of Jackson’s rare forays into comedy, the unjustly overlooked sports spoof The Great White Hype, his drive works remarkably well in the role of the Rev. Fred Sultan, a boxing promoter with the ethics of a Don King, the religious posturing of a Louis Farrakhan, and the fashion sense of an Ike Turner. Jackson’s intensity deftly conveys Sultan’s insatiable greed and jolts all the other players into action. By contrast, in A Time to Kill, the certainty of his poverty-stricken killer, Carl Lee Hailey, seems almost superhuman. Hailey, the father who avenges the rape of his 10-year-old daughter, is subdued yet implacable — and considerably shrewder than his attorney, played by Matthew McConaughey, whose mellow earnestness is overwhelmed by Jackson’s coiled anger; who’s the supporting actor here, anyway? In the end, of course, Hailey prevails — as anyone who’s seen a Jackson film knows he must — by keeping his head down, his eyes open, and his teeth gritted.
Which brings us back to The Negotiator‘s Roman, similarly entangled in a justice system determined to do him in. In this role, too, Jackson’s trademark intensity works against him to a surprising degree. James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox’s script is at fault for so swiftly transforming Roman into a law-flouting time bomb, but Jackson doesn’t help things when this much-decorated cop, seemingly headed straight for jail, makes his urgent move. Yes, Roman is a professional bluffer, but Jackson’s steeliness ends up concealing the desperate cop’s inner drama even from the audience. A little less determination might have made the switch more convincing — and the average viewer a bit more involved. Sometimes, even for heroes, the question has to be ”to be or not to be?”
Negotiator: B-; Jungle Fever: A-; Pulp Fiction: A; White Hype: A-; Time to Kill: B