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Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 10:09 am

He's in control

Why nobody wants to kill off Samuel L. Jackson

One of Samuel L. Jackson’s directors told the screenwriter that he couldn’t kill Jackson’s character. His contention? Jackson is the most trusted man in America, and audiences would not accept his death. It’s true: Jackson does project an image of stature and integrity found in few actors. In a way he is a contemporary Gary Cooper. Is there any doubt that he will persevere against 400 snakes in the aptly titled Snakes on a Plane? Jackson is an FBI agent transporting a witness to testify against a ruthless mobster who happens to display enormous ingenuity in killing people. When the killer releases snakes, Jackson takes charge amid the panic. He may lose his cool, but he never loses control.

A star was born when, as Jules, the hitman in Pulp Fiction (1994), he boisterously asked, “Did I break your concentration?” The answer, obviously, was yes. And when, as the title character in Coach Carter (2005), he promised to bench his high-school basketball team if they didn’t maintain 2.3 grade-point averages, you knew it was no bluff. Inspirational sports movies have been churned out with assembly-line frequency lately, but Coach Carter inspired in unexpected ways. By emphasizing academics over athletics, it exposed the culture of privilege accorded to athletes. It isn’t difficult to imagine Jackson himself cheering on the real Coach Carter in his crusade for fairness. Carter is a quintessential Jackson character.

Few actors can claim a string of credits as long and varied as Jackson’s, which boasts more than 70 movies to date. There is much to explore in his vast filmography. One of his oddest roles was the illegal drug chemist in Formula 51 (2001) who travels to England to sell his latest creation. The bizarre characters, including a psychotic escort (Robert Carlyle), a deranged mobster (Meat Loaf), and a quirky assassin (Emily Mortimer), really send this one over the edge, but that’s part of its charm. Ultimately it will be best known as Jackson’s kilt movie. The searing family drama Eve’s Bayou (1997) is an overlooked classic and definitely one of Jackson’s best films. He stars as a popular Louisiana doctor, circa 1962, whose womanizing leads to dire consequences. The story unfolds as a memory of his troubled daughter Eve, stemming from her personal guilt. These gems are just the tip of the iceberg for one of screen’s greatest.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Sept. 5): United 93, Kinky Boots, District B13, and Our Brand is Crisis.

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