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WTF Moments: Samuel L. Jackson's shocking Deep Blue Sea death is still nuts

By Josh Bell
Samuel L. Jackson Deep Blue Sea

It starts out with quiet ferocity.

Samuel L. Jackson, as businessman Russell Franklin, commands the attention of the crew of scientists and technicians who are left on the slowly flooding oceanic research station Aquatica and being stalked by lethal super-intelligent mako sharks. Russell is a wealthy investor who's sunk $200 million into the research project spearheaded by Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows), but he's also an adventurer and a survivalist. There have been vague references to a mountain-climbing accident that left him a changed man. And now he's about to draw on all his experience and indomitability (not to mention Jackson's gravitas as an actor) to inspire the other characters and lead them to safety.

"That's enough now, from all of you!" he bellows, grabbing everyone's attention. And here begins our biggest WTF Moment in Deep Blue Sea (1999), a movie that is absolutely filled with them.

In a speech clearly meant to mirror the anecdote that Quint (Robert Shaw) tells about the U.S.S. Indianapolis in Steven Spielberg's 1975 shark-movie masterpiece Jaws, Russell talks about his harrowing ordeal on the mountain.

"You think water moves fast? You should see ice," he starts out, a bit nonsensically, going on to imply that he and his fellow stranded climbers resorted to cannibalism before they escaped. "Seven of us survived the slide, and only five made it out," he says. "We said we'd say it was the snow that killed the other two, but it wasn't."

It's all deeply silly, but made fascinating by the way Jackson delivers it. Just as Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) go silent while Quint tells his story in Jaws, the other characters quiet their squabbling as soon as Russell starts talking.

Russell paces alongside an open moon pool. The music swells. The camera pushes in on Jackson, who gives the corny dialogue the full weight of his substantial screen presence. He moves on from talking about his own ordeal to deliver a stirring call to action.

"We're going to pull together, and we're going to find a way to get out of here!" he bellows. "First, we're going to seal off this pool ..."

And right then, chomp! A giant shark leaps out of the pool and grabs him, ripping him apart and saving the characters from having to listen to any more of this pompous speech.

It's one of the funniest moments in a movie that consistently treads the line between exciting and ridiculous, and it makes you laugh not just because of the way it undercuts Russell's hokey inspirational monologue, but also because it's a genuine shock from a movie that is often more predictable than clever. Obviously, a movie about giant, super-intelligent sharks is going to feature those sharks tearing most of the characters apart. But Russell is set up from the beginning like the calm voice of reason, the kind of character who will survive to the end thanks to his wits and resourcefulness.

The ruthless, calculating Dr. McAlester and Thomas Jane's bad-boy shark wrangler Carter Blake are the real main characters, but Russell makes a strong impression from the moment he shows up, five minutes into the movie, in an impeccably tailored suit and stylish glasses to tell McAlester that he's going to shut down her research because it's a waste of his money. She convinces him to visit Aquatica and see for himself what his money has been paying for, winning him over with her own harrowing personal story about watching her father struggle with Alzheimer's disease. "That was quite an impressive speech you gave back there," he says in what turns out to be a bit of ironic foreshadowing.

Later, Russell twice wanders dangerously close to openings to the ocean in different parts of the facility. "I wouldn't get that close if I were you. Just a suggestion," Carter tells him when he walks over to the pool where Aquatica's now-damaged submarine is kept. He's the most pragmatic character in the movie — until he isn't. Dr. McAlester's hubris in increasing the brain size of deadly sharks for the sake of her research is obvious, but Russell succumbs to his own brand of hubris, killed by his adherence to disaster-movie conventions.

Russell's death scene has rightfully become famous in the two decades since Deep Blue Sea was released (it was even imitated in the 2018 direct-to-video sequel Deep Blue Sea 2), and a recent Befores & Afters interview with the movie's special-effects team revealed that it was Jackson's impatience with the lengthy monologue that led to the scene playing out the way it does.

Director Renny Harlin may have originally been aiming to make an intense horror movie, but Russell's death scene is emblematic of the campy, tongue-in-cheek exploitation movie that he eventually delivered, a lively, fun, and surprisingly suspenseful thriller that deserves its prominent place in the shark-movie pantheon.