Samuel L. Jackson picks up the sword again

Jan. 23, 2009 | 10:28 p.m.

        Afro_samurai

It’s a point of pride for Samuel L. Jackson that if you list every film in which he has starred or appeared and add up their box-office receipts, the collective total would be higher than any other on-screen actor in history. That might be some arcane career calculus, but it does speak to the 60-year-old actor’s crowded schedule and crowd-pleasing sensibility.

On a recent afternoon, talking about his varied pursuits, Jackson began a sentence with, "In my spare time …" but couldn’t even finish the thought without laughing out loud. Jackson appeared in six films last year, and when discussing his upcoming ventures he has to pause to remember some of the titles and costars.

Next up, though, is a project that is near and dear to his heart: "Afro Samurai: Resurrection," a two-hour animated film that premieres this Sunday night on Spike TV and then hits stores as a DVD release on Feb. 3. In it, Jackson reprises his dual role as the Afro, a haunted warrior in a bleak world, and also his sidekick, the motor-mouthed Ninja Ninja.

The cartoon adapts the vision of manga star Takashi Okazaki and melds the stylized sword violence with the music of RZA, the hip-hop auteur of Wu-Tang Clan fame. "It’s a wonderful adventure about a black samurai in a post-apocalyptic world that’s a rich blend of the ancient and the new with a hip-hop beat," said Jackson, who is also executive producer. "It’s sexy, violent and extremely cool."

       Afro_samurai_2

Bloodshed and a visual flair have become the defining trademarks of Jackson’s film choices. He gleefully has embraced the chance to build on his reputation as royalty among the fanboy crowd. Whether in a Quentin Tarantino film (the director of "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Browne" has Jackson in his upcoming war flick "Inglourious Basterds"), swinging a lightsaber for George Lucas (Jackson’s Mace Windu is part of the recent animated "Star Wars" revival at theaters and on TV) or his work in films such as "The Spirit" or "The Incredibles," Jackson is a made man in this entertainment era.

"It’s an amazing time for animation and action movies and comics, all of it,” he said. "I’m loving it."

With this latest addition to the "Afro Samurai" adventures, Jackson has costars Lucy Liu ("Kill Bill") and Mark Hamill ("Star Wars"), and he’s picking up threads from the original 2007 miniseries.

"We’re moving on to the next phase of his life," Jackson said. "He’s become No. 1, but reluctantly and he refuses to actually wear the headband and be No. 1. He’s gone into seclusion and is doing penance for all of the people he’s killed, making little shrines for them. Then this woman shows up and wants to reanimate his father’s skeleton and create some sort of zombie army, which brings him out of his retirement to defend his family’s honor."

There’s also the video game that hit stores on Tuesday. Jackson predicts more to come from this particular character and hints that maybe the grim hero might find himself with family in future adventures, a la "Lone Wolf and Cub." "There’s lots of place to go in terms of the richness of this particular world," Jackson said.

One wider career challenge, though, is for the ubiquitous Jackson to make sure his varied hero and villain roles don’t blur together.

"Afro is closer to me," Jackson said of his sword-wielding alter ego. "I was an only child, and I’m used to being alone and being with my own thoughts. I’m not as subdued as him though. I’m a little more excitable. But those voices are different from Frozone [from ‘The Incredibles’] and those voices are different than Mace Windu. You hope that with the different faces on them and with the different mind-sets that I have in that role, that they are very different. The cadences and intonations are different but people still recognize them and me in them."

One solution is to spend more time behind the camera. Jackson, who is a passionate television fan, is now pushing into that sector as a producer for live-action projects. He has three projects at various stages — one is science fiction, another is buddy cop show and the third is a fantasy-based program. And he’s listening to pitches for a fourth, a comedy.

After years making movies on the studio schedule, he has been surprised and invigorated by the pace of television. "TV is the huge beast that needs to be fed," Jackson said. "Unlike the movies, where every eight or nine years they say, ‘Well, that script’s not ready yet,’ but in TV you go in with an idea and they say, ‘Great, go, write it.’ I like the speed of it."

Not everything is easy. "The Spirit" misfired at the box office, and the always fiery Jackson took some heat from critics and his fan constituency for being too over-the-top. Also, Jackson was penciled in to play the comic-book character Nick Fury in several upcoming films from Marvel Studios (he already made a cameo in that role at the end of last summer’s blockbuster “Iron Man”) but now money squabbles might take him in another direction.

But the cool duke of the fanboy film world seems unfazed by both those unsteady moments. Like his loner samurai character, he’s more than happy to walk a new path when necessary.

"Hey, I’m actually about to do a quiet little drama, ‘Mother and Child,’ with Annette Bening and Kerry Washington, that’s why I’m growing all of this stuff,” he said, rubbing his palm across his unshaven chin. "I’m playing a sophisticated older lawyer. Well, OK then, I haven’t done that in a while. I actually get to kiss a woman. And there’s no guns no fighting. Wow, cool."

– Geoff Boucher

Images from "Afro Samurai: Resurrection" courtesy of Spike TV.

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