Seagalmania: Marked for Death (1990)


Steven Seagal continues to buck action movie trends with Marked for Death, the entry in his filmography that fits between Hard to Kill and Out for Justice. This is one of Seagal’s most interesting pictures. It is also one of his darkest, fleshed out with voodoo, mysticism, religious undertones, drugs, the futility of the drug war, and other elements that give it more bang for its proverbial buck.

As with most Seagal movies, Marked for Death contains its fair share of action movie clichés and silly one-liners. But things are somewhat more tolerable here, as the cast operates in earnest and some of the acting is quite good. Even Seagal seems on-point here and there’s no fumbling around through fake accents or well-meaning but distended soliloquies about the environment.

Seagal stars as John Hatcher, an “undercover troubleshooter for the Drug Enforcement Agency. We first meet Hatcher as he’s chasing down a thug (Danny Trejo) as part of an operation. The operation goes downhill in a hurry, however, and leaves him with a bad taste in his mouth. Contemplating retirement, Hatcher heads to his hometown to be with his family. While there, he meets up with an old friend (Tom Wright) and discovers that a Jamaican drug gang has taken over the town’s youth.

Hatcher, burned out from the DEA and tired of fighting what he views a futile war on drugs, tries to ignore the drug dealing going on right under his nose. But when he interjects and saves a life during a gang shooting, he finds himself the target of the villainous Screwface (Basil Wallace) and his crew of voodoo cronies. Left without a choice, Hatcher fights back and takes on Screwface’s gang.

Screwface is, of course, no ordinary villain. There is a secret revealed at the end of the picture that makes sense of some of the more supernatural elements of his existence, but he still comes off as exceptionally creepy and quite insane. Much of what Wallace’s character says is pure nonsense, but there’s still a sense of menace and evil to Screwface that helps him go down as one (or two?) of Seagal’s best foes.

Marked for Death, directed by Dwight H. Little, goes to great pains to ensure that the audience knows it’s not targeting all Jamaicans or stereotyping the people. Max (Keith David) is an operative with the FBI. He’s been tracking Screwface his whole career and enlightens Charles (Wright) about Jamaica when their adventures eventually take them there, informing Hatcher’s pal that Jamaicans, like anyone else on earth, can go off the rails a little bit. A lesser action movie would’ve been comfortable with its typecasting, but this one even lets Jimmy Cliff sit in to ease the potential tension.

There are some scenes that are rather ridiculous. It is a Seagal movie, after all. One particularly funny sequence involves an extravagant voodoo ritual that includes a rooster, cigar smoke, a topless lady in a bath, and a bottle of Bacardi. One wonders if any brand of rum would’ve done the trick or if voodoo requires a certain degree of brand loyalty.

There’s also an A-Team-like scene that finds Seagal, David and Wright getting a bunch of weapons together and building stuff. The scene reaches its hysterical zenith when Seagal, mid-banter, starts firing at a slab of cow that’s suddenly appeared. Good times.

The action sequences are satisfying and graphic, as they should be. One scene involves Seagal fighting off three dudes at the same time and really demonstrates his martial arts prowess. He continues to move his feet, using their momentum to pave the way for their undoing and dispatching them in bone-breaking fashion like only he can.

Marked for Death is one of Steven Seagal’s better films. It is succinct yet complex enough to have layers beyond the usual routine, delivering a strangely alluring villain and all the bloody violence that comes with the territory. There are the one-liners (“God made men”) and the inexplicable portions, all par for the course for the genre.

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