Samuel L. Jackson is a yeller. A growler. Part human, part pouncing jungle cat.
He scares the shit out of everyone.
When I interviewed him way back when for “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” I noted: “Samuel L. Jackson enters a room the way you’d think Samuel L. Jackson would enter a room — with velocity, fury … ,” and there memory fails me. But fear not, because you can fill in the blanks, envisaging the long coat fluttering in a gust, his hello more of a guttural emission than a salutation.
I had to laugh.
But do we still laugh? The actor, bad, bald and raging, has a persona to maintain, and, yes, its tongue remains deeply in cheek. His is a cultivated act, swathed in black leather, engined by a scolding severity, and leavened by a scratched baritone laugh that could go either way: sinister or Santa Claus. (It’s almost always the former.)
Jackson, with a strenuous wink, even tries to intimidate us, if just a little, in his “What’s in your wallet?” Capital One commercials, some of which are humorously doctored by those who want their hero reliably profane. He prowls the screen with proprietary confidence, his spokedude’s blandishments quite uncompromising. (Use this card. Or else.)
He’s got it down: the self-parodic scowl and growl, eyes popping, mouth a lion’s maw, the apoplectic human megaphone. We’d have it no other way. He’s modern movies’ go-to badass, the man you call when, in the face of ineptitude and criminal folly, glowering gravitas and debonair menace are demanded.
That voice. The earth rumbles.
In this former film critic’s review of the 2008 thriller “Lakeview Terrace,” in which Jackson plays a toxic cop, I wrote that Jackson’s “roiling, rhythmic voice is an instrument of interrogation and intimidation. It barks, recoils, then rears up and roars. He has a rapper’s control of tone and timbre, turning passion and ire into a kind of sociopathic backbeat.”
In my take on his 2000 “Shaft” reboot, I went on:
“Samuel L. Jackson speaks like a building storm; his words have lightning jags in them.
“When he taunts his quarry, which he does with great frequency, his throat tightens, throttling syllables. His voice kicks up a few octaves until words sing with angry strain. Expletives fly in shrapnel sprays.
“‘What’s my name? What’s . . . my . . . name?’ shouts Jackson at a preening dope dealer as his pistol forges an elaborate imprint on the pusher’s cheek.
“In his crime-dude roles, in films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘The Negotiator,’ Jackson is pure gale-force attitude and wrath-of-God fury.”
Jackson’s breakthrough role, and arguably his most popular, is Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction.” Slick in a bespoke black suit, head crowned with a Medusa nest of glistening Jheri curls, and with scary Bible verses at the ready, he’s all grooving fire and brimstone, an apocalyptic preacher-man with a very large gun and a very short fuse.
Jules showcased Jackson’s range, which is more faceted than the picture painted here of an implacable, one-note Angry Man. Jackson is a genius at outrage, explosive outbursts of verbiage and violence. But his Jules also revealed he’s an expert comedian, with a gift for brilliant badinage, not to mention a penchant for brooding, sometimes profound introspection. He’s proud but protean.
Jackson doesn’t need to yell to get our attention. His seething charisma is all it takes. It’s the aura of a star, some kind of supernova, that snags us in his thrall. He’s the real deal. Just don’t piss him off.