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Marked for Death
Tonight's Feature Presentation

MARKED FOR DEATH (1990)

Starring: Steven Seagal, Basil Wallace, Keith David, Joanna Pacula, Elizabeth Gracen, Tom Wright

Written By: Michael Grais, Mark Victor Directed By: Dwight H. Little

The Short Version

Steven Seagal in his prime = snap, crack, pop, bone crunchies!

Marked for Death is his nod to the media’s obsession with Jamaican drug posses.

Seagal performs reggae during the end credits; try not to think about that.

Don’t worry about anything making sense: either the plot or the accents.

Just listen to the bones snap and enjoy yourself; that’s all the point Marked for Death needs.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

MONTEREY JACK.

Cut into cubes on a party tray, mon, with little toothpicks poked into them like pins in a voodoo doll.


Pairs Well With...

DOUBLE RUM SHOT WITH A RED STRIPE CHASER.

“Gimme a beer, and give my man here a double.”

“I don’t do doubles on the first date.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

“One thought he was invincible.  The other thought he could fly.  They were both wrong.”


If you’re trying to pick out a single movie that epitomizes action in 1990, you’d be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Marked for Death.  It’s got Steven Seagal at his prime, a Jamaican drug posse at its most vocally incomprehensible, guns that go boom, and bones that go crunch.  If you want it all to come across as coherent, that’ll cost you extra.  Specifically, it’ll cost whatever it takes to get you extra drunk first.

But hey, it’s 1990.  Coherence is like Elizabeth Gracen’s bra in this movie: optional!

Let’s step into Mr. Seagal’s parlor and look at the story before we go any further, though, shall we?

John Hatcher (Steven Seagal, On Deadly Ground) is an undercover DEA agent working a case south of the border.  (Just how far south is never technically specified.)  His partner is worried that their cover has been blown by a two-timing informant, but Hatcher decides to go ahead with a deal that’s supposed to bring them closer to a major kingpin anyway.  Alas, they have been made, things go bad, and when the smoke clears, a naked woman has killed Hatcher’s partner.

This causes Hatcher to do some soul searching, and after confessing to his priest, he decides to retire from the DEA and regather his senses by visiting his sister (Elizabeth Gracen, Lower Level) in the suburbs of Chicago.  Unfortunately, the scourge of the drug trade just won’t go away.  Hatcher’s old war buddy turned high school football coach Max (Keith David, The Thing) tries to explain to him that Jamaican drug posses are taking over the town, but Hatcher, just wanting some peace, tries to ignore him.  Max becomes hard to ignore, however, when a bunch of machine gun toting Rastas start shooting up the bar where the two pals are having a drink, and when all is said done, Hatcher ends up disarming the crew and getting them arrested. 

This doesn’t sit well with the lord of the posse, Screwface (Basil Wallace, Wedlock), who has Hatcher and his entire family marked for death as punishment for interfering.  When another crew does a drive by of Hatcher’s house that send his young niece to the ICU, Hatcher decides that the time to sit back in idle retirement is over.  With Max’s help, he’s going to kick the posse right the hell out of Illinois, and they don’t need no stinkin’ badges to do it, either…

Marked for Death is Steven Seagal hitting his stride.  After an extremely successful debut two years before and a well-received follow-up earlier in 1990, he’s gotten past the stage of having something to prove and moved on to just picking up the ball and running with it.  Take the hot issue of the day (Jamaican drug posses), give it the now-familiar Steven Seagal spin of the soul-searching, disillusioned cop making bones go “crunch,” and we’ve got ourselves a movie!

Of course, Marked for Death is a pretty easy movie to get lost in if you try to approach it with any attitude other than “just watch the limbs bend the wrong way and be happy,” and with that in mind, I strongly suggest that you don’t approach it with any but the aforementioned attitude.  For those who insist, however, here’s a select list of things to look for and things not to look for.

Look for a quick appearance by Danny Trejo as the punk informant being chased down right at the start of the movie.  Extra point of interest: the opening scene of Trejo’s Machete bears an uncanny resemblance to the opening of this one; it’s no carbon copy by any means, but the parallels are striking.

Look for a lot of random boobs in this movie (a first for a Seagal flick), including those of former Playmate of the Month Teri Weigel prior to getting her implants for her forthcoming porn career.

Don’t look for any evidence of former Miss America Elizabeth Gracen’s bra, but feel free to look for evidence of its absence.  She stays dressed, but hey.

Look for the most unlikely boyhood bedroom ever when Hatcher goes home.  The football jersey and the gun collection do not belong to the rest of that room; sorry.

Look for the next step in the evolution of Seagal’s “family man” character formula.  He started off as the married man with the baby and the big extended family.  Then he was married and suddenly widowed, which allowed him to pick up a love interest (who, ironically enough, was played by his real wife).  This time, he’s a bachelor with close ties to his single mom sister.  Still attached enough to be more “wholesome” than the generic “lone wolf” formula, but regressing toward the mean.

Don’t look for him to take any advantage of that bachelor freedom.  Most action flicks would have assigned the character played by Joanna Pacula (Warlock: The Armageddon) as his love interest, but John Hatcher’s only interested in pumping her for information and nothing else.  If she has ten lines, she’s lucky, and one of them is indeed a declaration of interest, but it’s all one sided, and if you blink, you’ll miss it.  When he gets his info, you never see her again.

Don’t look for a lot of other plot points to get resolved, either.  Early on – while we’re being introduced to Joanna Pacula, actually – it looks like some Feds on the case are going to be dogging Hatcher and giving him trouble, but nothing ever comes of it, and they just disappear, save for the one guy who hops over to Hatcher’s team, which was, of course, the whole point of there being Feds to begin with.

Really don’t look for the Feds – or any cops – to show up after Hatcher and Max completely trash an upscale jewelry store after first knocking off a few sidewalk cafes in the pursuit of some posse members.  Previous Seagal flicks would have at least paid some lip service to explaining how they get away with this, but Seagal is past that stage now.

Look for Seagal’s character to resort to flat-out execution style murder for the first time.  Wow.  (You do get a great follow-up one-liner from it, though.  Look for a few of those, as usual.)

Don’t look for any follow-up on the poor niece.  After Seagal first visits her in the hospital for his “now I’m pissed” scene, you’ll never see her again.  There’s a throwaway line a few scenes later wherein his sister says her condition is improving, but that’s it.  Aren’t these movies supposed to end with a happy hospital visit to wrap things up with a teddy bear and a smile?

It’s optional, but a popular fad when it comes to watching Marked for Death is to look for the subtitle option on your copy of the movie.  The Jamaican accents are very, very thick, and if you don’t have a good ear for them, they really are pretty incomprehensible.  Yes, they’re really using the term “bloodclot” as an insult.  No, it doesn’t make any sense to me, either.

Look for the Jamaican posse members to ham up their Rasta-ness every chance they get.  This movie really doesn’t want you to forget that the bad guys aren’t Colombian.

Look for lots and lots of voodoo, too, as if the dreadlocks and the Rasta accents weren’t enough to sell the non-Colombian-ness of the posse. Oh, and lots and lots of cases of Red Stripe at their hideout.

Look for the posse to miss out on lots of opportunities to kill Hatcher outright.  Screwface has the chance to shoot Hatcher dead while he’s trapped in his car, and instead just tosses in a Molotov cocktail.  Not right onto Hatcher, mind, but to the farthest corner of the car so he’ll have plenty of time to escape.  In another scene, they’ve got his sister tied to her living room table ready to be sacrificed when Hatcher bolts in.  The posse appears to be gone, and he doesn’t bother to make sure before seeing to his sister.  Had even one stayed behind with a shotgun, it’s end of movie.  But no; bad guys are dumb.

Look for the movie to go out of its way to point out that most Jamaicans aren’t actually drug dealing posse members.  Two different scenes in the film are designed to grab your attention with dialogue to that effect, plus there's a line in the end credits.  I bet a lot of nice Colombian people looked at that and said, “Hey!  We never got that in seven years of Miami Vice!”

Look for an old school weapons prep montage in place of the old school training montage.

Look for Hatcher to stand out like a sore thumb wearing black ninja gear while climbing over a brightly lit white wall in full view of the bad guys if they’d just turn around.  Smooth camo.

Look for lots of limbs to bend in directions they’re not supposed to bend in, along with accompanying crunchy sound effects.  Seagal is really ramping up the snappage here, and it is awesome.

Don’t look for particularly special direction here.  Dwight Little (Tekken) isn’t bad, per se, but he definitely doesn’t know how to properly showcase a fight.  The fact the fights still look good is very much a tribute to the effort of Steven Seagal both as a performer and as the guy coordinating the martial arts beatdowns.  Better stuff from behind the camera and in the director’s chair could have raised this to a whole new level, but it’s still fun enough.

Look for that “fun enough” to include the kickass final battle that was missing from Seagal’s first two movies.  Finally, the bad guy is capable of fighting back, and the resulting combat takes more than ten seconds to finish.  You get a lot of hurtin’ on this dude for your money, too, including one of Seagal’s most impressive bonesnaps ever, bookended by two other very spectacular moves that I’ll let you see for yourself.

Look for Keith David to rock riding shotgun.  ‘Nuf said.

Look for Steven Seagal to apparently be such a stud that when he walks into a club in Jamaica as the only white man there, the sexiest woman in the place makes a show of slink dancing her way across the floor to him while he just stands there with his arms crossed in a “yeah, that’s right, baby” pose.

Look for reggae mon Jimmy Cliff to make an appearance, and listen for his strong contributions to the soundtrack.

Look for the related bonus of Steven Seagal starting what would become a new tradition by co-writing and performing background on “John Crow,” the song that plays during the end credits.

You can look for all of these things, and they will be there, but the most important item for you to look for in Marked for Death is that one intangible thing that is common to all of Steven Seagal’s early movies: ass kicking fun.  That’s what he’s figured out here more than anything else.  His audience didn’t care as much about plot as he’d gone for in his first two films; what they cared about was a basic framework where the answer to problem involved guns that go boom and bones that go snap.  Message received, movie delivered, results as promised.  In return, Seagal got the appreciation of his loyal fans and of most other action moviegoers of 1990, as well.

As it turns out, twenty-one years later, there’s still plenty to appreciate.

Bottom line, Marked for Death may drop a lot of subplots and its bad guys may be all but completely incomprehensible to listen to, but the movie kicks where it counts.  For Seagal fans, this one’s an essential add-on to the collection, as are all of his early films, and for the regular action crowd, Marked for Death is also more than worth the time as a superb slice of its age.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011


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