Samuel L. Jackson? A scene stealer in Deep Blue Sea? But wasn’t he the star of that movie? Well, yes and no. Just go with this.
1999’s cult favourite, about a group of genetically engineered sharks going on the rampage in an underwater facility, is as schlocky yet brilliant as that description sounds. Renny Harlin’s film is still remembered fondly for its daft premise (the sharks’ brains have been made bigger as part of research into treating Alzheimer’s disease), an eclectic cast and some great action scenes. But the one part you’ll never forget if you’ve seen Deep Blue Sea is Jackson’s genuinely surprising death scene only about halfway through.
Let’s get some context. Even two decades ago, when the film came out, Samuel L. Jackson was a superstar. He’d spent the ’90s building up a portfolio of breakthrough roles in Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction and Die Hard with a Vengeance – and just weeks before he’d debuted in Star Wars as Mace Windu in The Phantom Menace. While some of the other DBS cast are pretty recognisable now – Thomas Jane, Stellan Skarsgård, LL Cool J – they were largely unknown in Hollywood circles then. This was (and is…) especially true for lead actress Saffron Burrows.
So Jackson was undoubtedly the biggest name on the poster, though he was credited with ‘and Samuel L. Jackson’ and part of the ensemble that disaster/horror movies usually require ahead of an inevitably high body count. He plays corporate executive Russell Franklin, sent by the sceptical financial backers of Dr. Susan McAlester’s (Burrows) experiments to check on their investment. Giving deadly predators enhanced size, speed and intelligence – what could go wrong? Well, obviously, they break loose, flood the whole site and try to eat everyone. Skarsgård’s Jim and the facility’s tower operator Brenda are the first to become mako shark lunch, and the survivors escape to the top of the centre to regroup. As a tense blame game breaks out and the group threaten to turn on each other, up steps Russell to rally them with a personal, heartfelt and inspirational monologue.
He’s standing in front of a pool for launching a research submersible, but that’s probably not important. Just listen to his story about once being trapped by an avalanche (this guy’s had an unlucky life).
“Somewhere, we lost hope,” he says.
“Nature can be lethal but it doesn’t hold a candle to man.” It’s getting good.
“Now you’ve seen how bad things can get, but they can get a whole lot worse.” Tell ’em Sam!
“So we’re not going to fight anymore! We’re going to pull together” – emotional strings score kicking in now – “and we’re going to find a way to get outta here. First, we’re gonna seal off this pool…” CHOMP!
And in a flurry of ropey late-’90s CGI, Russell is gone. The other survivors scream in horror, blood bubbles up to turn the pool red. Then just as you wonder how he survived that (because he must have) the scene switches to an underwater shot where a second shark rips off his head. As far as Hollywood blockbuster rug pulls go, it’s a doozy. Yes, this movie just killed off its biggest star with half the runtime still to play. The death is made even more shocking by subverting the usual beats of a disaster/horror plot. When someone gives a speech like that, accompanied by swells of triumphant music, the audience is conditioned to expect an upturn in the protagonists’ fortunes. Yet here, with gleeful abandon, director Harlin upends this completely – leaving viewers in no doubt that literally anybody could end up as chow.
In fact, that was Harlin’s intention the whole time. He’s since said that we wanted relative unknowns to star so the audience wouldn’t know who’d survive, then cast a megastar like Jackson to bump off and mess with everyone’s heads. Supposedly he was inspired by Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas biting the dust so early in Alien. Incidentally, the original ending where LL Cool J’s chef Preacher died and Burrows’ McAlester survived was changed after test audiences literally wrote ‘kill the bitch‘, and their fates were switched.
Needless to say, Jackson’s premature exit didn’t harm his career any. Within a few years he’d be Mace Windu twice more, Mr. Glass, Frozone, Nick Fury – and still one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. However, he’ll also be etched into many brains for one of the best death scenes in modern movie history. Thanks, Deep Blue Sea.