Samuel L. Jackson birthday: recapping his 15 most underrated movies

Samuel L. Jackson is 72 years old today, and we decided to build a list of his underrated movies to commemorate the occasion. However, this is harder than it looks, given Jackson's career spans over 30 years, and has encompassed more than $13 billion worldwide.

He's been justly acclaimed for explosive turns in the likes of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Django Unchained (all for Quentin Tarantino). He's diversified into action movies in Die Hard with a Vengeance, provided the voice of Frozen in Pixar's Incredibles and Incredibles 2, and won a clutch of new fans as Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

However, we're going off the map to draw your attention to those overlooked performances. Each of the following films demonstrates Jackson's terrific range across a host of genres.


1. Jungle Fever (1991)

Jackson's association with writer-director Spike Lee stretches back to the simmeringly tense Do the Right Thing in 1989. In that movie, he played an outspoken radio DJ who essentially acts as  Greek Chorus, commenting on the film's broiling racial hatred. Lee's underrated Jungle Fever gives Jackson a more substantial role, playing strung-out junkie Gator. The powerful scene in which Gator tries to coerce money from his parents (played by Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis) is an early indicator of the raw charisma and screen presence he would establish throughout the 1990s.

2. Juice (1992)

Jackson had a tendency to make small but impactful roles in the early-nineties. Juice is a case in point, showing that he didn't need much screen time to make an impact. Ernest R. Dickerson's underrated drama was hailed by the noted film critic Roger Ebert, and focuses on four black Harlem youths struggling with police harassment. The film is significant for showcasing Tupac Shakur in his screen debut. Jackson's character Trip lies outside of the main ensemble, but he still puts his mark on the movie. Ebert lauded the film's ability to take on "the quality of a nightmare".

3. A Time To Kill (1996)

This tense John Grisham adaptation features a memorable, Golden Globe-nominated performance from Jackson. And yet, few people seem to cite the film alongside the likes of Pulp Fiction. Jackson is impassioned and edgy as a black father in America's Deep South who executes the two white men who killed his young daughter. The ensuing court case puts America's history of racial tension in the dock, but the urgency and desperation of the situation is entirely filtered through Jackson's reactions. 

4. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Here's a satirical action-thriller that never found its audience. Not unlike Arnie flop Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight takes great pleasure in drawing attention to the ridiculousness of blockbuster cliches. Geena Davis is the amnesiac who discovers she has a particular set of skills, and she's well-matched with a likeable Jackson. He plays Mitch, one of the men who may help Davis's character unlock the secrets of her past. Top marks must go to the ice-skating action sequence – you don't see too many of those.

5. Hard Eight (1996)

Before he hit the big time with the likes of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, director Paul Thomas Anderson crafted this quirky gambling drama. It was the director's first collaboration with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. And, to date, his only one with Samuel L. Jackson. He's hard-nosed and threatening as Jimmy, the gun-toting psycho locked in conflict with Philip Baker Hall's ageing gambler Sydney. It's another reminder that Jackson can eat up the screen, despite clocking in just a few minutes of air time.

6. Trees Lounge (1996)

In the wake of Pulp Fiction, Jackson was offered any number of violent and psychotic roles. However, he instead capitalised on the decade's new-found enthusiasm for offbeat independent cinema, which was largely fuelled by Pulp Fiction's extraordinary success. Trees Lounge is a case in point, showcasing another small, but perfectly formed, Jackson role. Steve Buscemi's acclaimed directorial debut centres around the titular bar, populated by miscreants and eccentrics, of which Jackson's Wendell is one.

7. Eve's Bayou (1997)

One of Jackson's best performances comes in this harrowing drama from actor-director Kasi Lemmons (Candyman). Here is a Jackson turn that's implosive rather than explosive, playing a loving father and husband who is suspected of having an affair with his daughter. The movie is filtered through the eyes of young Jurnee Smollet's character, meaning our perception of Jackson's seemingly upstanding doctor is forever shifting. Lemmons' direction and Terence Blanchard's score also work wonders in immersing us in the drama.

8. The Negotiator (1998)

From moody, character-led drama to sweaty paranoia: Jackson can leapfrog between genres and tones with ease. The Negotiator is a solidly entertaining hostage thriller in which Jackson's titular negotiator is framed for a crime he didn't commit. He's then locked in a battle of wills with Kevin Spacey's character, a fellow negotiator who must talk him down. Although the movie sports a slick, glossy, 1990s visual aesthetic, the real fireworks come from the verbal clash between the two main stars.

9. The Red Violin (1999)

This multi-stranded drama traces the journey of a violin across the world, which in turn allows us to enter the lives of the instrument's various owners. Jackson has a small role near the end of the movie as a market appraiser who comes to realise the red violin's remarkable value, and its rich history. It's a quiet and subtle role from Jackson, although John Corigliano's Oscar-winning score teases out the multifaceted emotions going on beneath the surface.

10. Shaft (2000)

Jackson has, in fact, played blaxploitation icon John Shaft twice: once in this theatrically released movie from 2000, and again in a 2019 Netflix-distributed offering. The latter is appalling; the former is a worthy salute to the legacy of original Shaft actor Richard Roundtree (who cameos). The role of no-nonsense private eye Shaft essentially allows Jackson to unleash all of the badass mannerisms we've come to love and enjoy, particularly when he goes head-to-head with Christian Bale's smarmy villain.

11. Unbreakable (2000)

Here's another fine example of Jackson's gift for understatement. In a complete reversal from Shaft, Jackson is eerie and unsettling as Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass. In M. Night Shyamalan's arresting riff on comic book tropes, the brittle-boned Price believes his destiny is tied in with Bruce Willis's David Dunn, a seemingly invulnerable man. Jackson's icily engrossing performance keeps us guessing throughout, and nearly two decades later, was revived in sequel Glass.

12. Changing Lanes (2002)

Jackson is on a collision course with Ben Affleck in director Roger Michell's overwrought thriller. Imagine Michael Douglas's 1992 movie Falling Down, throw in a bit of road rage, and you have an idea of what to expect. Jackson is, as ever, tremulous and convincing as an ordinary man thrown into emotionally gruelling circumstances, an alcoholic insurance salesman who is tipped over the edge by this chance encounter. 

13. Coach Carter (2005)

So many of Jackson's performances have dwelt on the wild side. It's therefore refreshing to see a role of his that's straightforwardly inspirational and optimistic. The overlooked Coach Carter is a case in point. The movie, based on a true story, explores how a dedicated basketball coach demands academic excellence from his players, benching them until they improve. The film conforms to many a genre cliche along the way, but Jackson's emotionally honest central turn, alternating between white-hot rage and pride, keeps us hooked.

14. Unthinkable (2010)

Emotional anguish and the ramifications of interrogation are the order of the day in this disturbing drama. Jackson sheds any notion of likeability to play a dedicated interrogator who is locked in a deadly battle of wills with an Islamic convert (Michael Sheen). The escalating war of wills between the two men results in cruel manipulation tactics, and the film's uncomfortable, controversial nature meant it wasn't widely seen. Nevertheless, it reaffirms Jackson's dedication to the most difficult of characters.

15. The Other Guys (2010)

Let's end on a lighter note, with another relatively minuscule but memorable performance from Jackson. This sly buddy comedy takes great relish in subverting the cliches of classics such as Lethal Weapon, establishing a chalk and cheese partnership between Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. But in order to get there, we must first meet Jackson's Highsmith and Dwayne Johnson's Danson, two seemingly invincible cops who, hilariously, aren't able to use plot armour to escape their fate. Their demise paves the way for Ferrell and Wahlberg.



What role of Samuel L. Jackson's do you consider to be underrated? Let us know @Cineworld.