After a drug bust in Colombia goes sour, disillusioned DEA agent John Hatcher (Steven Seagal) quits the force. He returns home to reconnect with his family only to find his small American town overrun with violent Jamaican drug-dealers led by a maniacal, voodoo-energized kingpin called Screwface (Basil Wallace). Waging a turf war with a rival Columbian cartel Screwface's gun-toting cronies shoot up a bar forcing Hatcher to intervene. Hatcher's heroism enrages Screwface. It is not long before a hit squad reaches his home as our crusading cop learns his family are... wait for it... marked for death.
At the peak of his popularity in the early Nineties, Steven Seagal headlined a string of slick action vehicles with production values a cut above the direct-to-video dreck he cranks out to this day. Of course while Seagal's films were more polished than say, Chuck Norris' output at Cannon Films, they were no less dumb. Marked for Death stands out by virtue of being one of his wilder, weirder movies pitting the pony-tailed pugilist against a horde of comic book Jamaican stereotypes and a dreadlocked rasta-masta with honest-to-god voodoo powers. Hence an air of mysticism hangs over the evil antics of Screwface. He moves like a ghost, appears in many places at once, casts runes to foretell the future, smears chicken blood on intended victims and appears indestructible. As a bonus horror veteran Dwight H. Little adds a scene where a sexy Santeria priestess bathes in milk and slaughters yet another chicken just to up the gratuitous black magic nudity quotient.
Sadly the film squanders this promising premise on a routine shoot-'em-up. Even Joanna Pacula's voodoo expert, seemingly set up as an invaluable ally or at the very least a potential love interest (given she all but melts at the first sight of John Hatcher), has next to no impact on the pedestrian plot. The villains may as well be Italian mobsters or Middle Eastern terrorists for all the difference it makes. Their sole function is to piss Seagal off enough to do his thing. This they do by machine-gunning his family home and hospitalizing his cute little niece played by future scream queen Danielle Harris, veteran of Little's Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Meyers (1988). Yet while Little manages to weave an intriguingly eerie atmosphere around Screwface, his pacing of the all-important action scenes is sluggish. Seagal's much-vaunted martial arts prowess relies overtly on choppy editing that proves more confusing than compelling.
On a thematic level Marked for Death is mildly interesting. Co-written by Michael Grais and Mark Victor the script is something of a call to arms after a decade of complacency, reflecting then-President George Bush Sr.'s escalation of the war on drugs. Early into the film we have an unintentionally hilarious scene where Hatcher confesses to a priest all the terrible things he has done as an undercover agent which include lying, murdering people, taking drugs and sleeping with informants (women, one assumes though the alternative would be a novel twist in a Seagal movie). The futility of the war on drugs leaves Hatcher cynical, disillusioned and no longer willing to risk his neck. Instead he tries to reconnect with the simple, small town values that presumably made him want to be a cop in the first place, only to find them threatened by what else but drugs. Scenes of black pushers targeting clean-cut young white boys and girls flirt with offensive cliché but the film works to counterbalance potential racism with more positive black characters in the form of Hatcher's crime-busting pal Max (Keith David) and Jamaican DEA agent Charles (Tom Wright). Weirdly, Max is just a high school football coach yet no-one bats an eyelid when he shotgun blasts thugs on a crowded street.
The script tries to hammer home the message that Hatcher is wrong to bury his head in the sand when there is so much worth fighting for but Seagal's surly persona proves more hindrance than help. Your traditional action hero rallies their community to take a moral stand. Hatcher might care about his family but appears indifferent to everyone else. He threatens criminals and civilians alike, right down to the doctor treating his niece, and nonchalantly plows his car through a crowded restaurant and shopping mall. Like many action heroes of his ilk, Seagal's characters are cut-rate imitations of Clint Eastwood that miss the point. Dirty Harry was frustrated with the system not contemptuous of society. Special guest appearance from Jimmy Cliff who performs a reggae theme song co-written by Steven Seagal!
Didn't think I'd seen this one till you mentioned Jimmy Cliff at the end, Seagal flicks merge into one after a while. Odd how obsessed these action movies were with drugs when they came across as being made during a coke binge. RIP Nancy Reagan.
10 May 2016
My theory is that a lot of producers saw Robert Evans as a cautionary example and made movies like this as a preemptive strike so the FBI wouldn't raid their house.