1990 wasn’t a good year to be a Jamaican male in an American movie; after all, Disney’s Cool Runnings was still three years away and chances were if you weren’t getting sliced and diced by an alien big game hunter in Predator 2, then you were probably having your limbs snapped thanks to the aikido of one Steven Seagal.
After utilising his martial arts skills against various Mafia goombas, crooked politicians and even an honest to god coma in his past couple of movies, Seagal now turned his particularly vicious style of bitch slapping, shoving and wrist locks against deranged, dreadlocked, drug pushers and while Marked For Death may be as subtle as a jackhammer back massage, it does succeed in giving him some worthy foes to fight.
John Hatcher is an undercover trouble shooter for the DEA who has a tendency to bend the rules a little (read: a lot) when trying to bring drug pushers to justice by shooting them to death. After his most recent case in Colombia predictably ended up in a firefight that left his shitty partner dead and Hatcher instinctively blowing away the topless stripper responsible, the pony-tailed lawman realises that the weight of the job is crushing what little morals he has left and he vows to step down from the force in order to salvage his soul. However, upon returning to his family’s home town in Chicago his former army buddy Max clues him in that the area actually is in the midst of a serious drug problem thanks to a Jamacian Drug Posse that’s operating in the area that’s run by an utter maniac who goes by the name of Screwface. Despite Max’s pleas for John to get back into the game and help him crack some drug dealer skulls, John stubbornly maintains that he’s still on a strict, self-imposed, skull-cracking free diet and nothing – but nothing – is going to change th- oh, no wait a minute… After inadvertently decking one of Screwface’s crew in a bar fight, Hatcher suddenly finds himself in the vengeful crosshairs of the Posse whose vendetta escalates into booking his family in for an appointment for some drive-by shooting which seriously wounds John’s niece.
Teaming up with Max and Detective Marks, a Jamacian detective whose dedicated the last five years of his career to bringing down Screwface, Hatcher wages a war against the Posse that takes him from Chicago to Kingston and back and stacks up more dead bodies a coroner’s office the morning after The Purge.
Can Hatcher and his unchanging facial expressions stand against the terror tactics of a vicious enemy who rules his men with superstition, fear and a shit-load of drugs coursing through their systems?
These days Steven Seagal is sort of a punchline to a joke no one asked with his film career languishing in direct to video hell as he resembles a scowling, goateed Oliver Hardy more and more everyday; but in his heyday Segal was the moodier ying to Van Damme’s more good natured yang in the pantheon of B-List 80’s action heroes. Seagal’s style of fighting – which often looked like a really disturbing version of pat-a-cake that’s designed to deviate your septum with blunt force trauma – sat well with his glum-but-spiritual good guys who often were just as vicious as the villians he was trying to beat. As a result, unless they were shooting at him, bad guys rarely got a chance to get a single blow in as the pony tailed martial artist would usually plough right through them while rarely picking up a scratch by the time the credits rolled, but Marked For Death turns out to be a “little” different. Dwight H. Little to be more exact, who at the time was more famous for giving Michael Myers his fourth Halloween outing and casting Robert Englund as a very Freddy-like Phantom Of The Opera and whose eye for violent villains actually makes Segal work a little harder than usual by the time we whizz to the climax.
At this point I guess we have to address the fact that by the second half of the movie our hero is beating the shit exclusively out of black men who constantly insist on calling him a bloodclaat, but thankfully the film manages to address some of the balance by not only have the magnificent Keith David portray his bestest buddy, but utilizes a Jamaican cop too in order not to portray all of his people as “dope dealing dreads” (David’s words, not mine), although you kind of feel that the movie should actually be less about Hatcher and more about Detective Marks who ultimately is done shockingly dirty due to a late villain plot twist.
While not the best of Seagal’s pre-Under Siege output (aka. the moment when he truly hit the big time – for a while anyway), it’s not too far off with it’s punchy, solid action and clench-jawed dialogue scoring many a memorable and absurd moment. The fact that Hatcher isn’t actually affiliated with any law enforcement agency and doesn’t even have a job for two thirds of the movie makes it frankly hilarious that he can get into car chases in the centre of town, unleash deadly shootouts in a local mall with no thought of public safety and even cross global borders to decapitate an enemy with a samurai sword without any legal issues whatsoever that makes Marked For Death such stupid fun. The violence is fittingly nasty and even for an early Segal flick, big Steve’s impressively brutal dispatching of Screwface is gleefully excessive as he uses his thumbs to push the gangster’s eyes into his brain, snaps his spine across his knee like he’s Bane breaking the Batman and then hurls him down a lift shaft where he’s impaled as a grisly warning to the rest of his posse. Other highlights include watching him slap a younger Danny Trejo around, tooling up for battle by practicing his aim on on a massive cow carcass that’s just randomly hanging in the corner of the room and witnessing him impassively whisper lines like “One thought he was invincible, the other thought he could fly. They were both wrong.” as if he’s utterly convinced he’s going to get an Oscar. While Seagal’s acting skills may not hit as hard as his fists and his noticably peculiar running style makes Roger Moore look like Usain Bolt, he’s still wonderfully cheesy fun to watch, especially when his more personal, eclectic tastes start to worm his way into the production – for example, the genuinely hideous black jacket that has two golden dragons embroidered on the breast the actor wears in some scenes is obviously something the mental bastard brought in from home; and if he didn’t then you can bet your bottom dollar he took it home after shooting wrapped.
When it comes to the action epics of the early nineties, Marked For Death hardly rocks the world like a Terminator 2, a Cliffhanger or even a Die Hard 2, but it still manages to carve it’s own brutal niche.