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Wednesday 26 May 2021

Burl reviews Marked for Death! (1990)


With a hapkido hello, it’s Burl, here to review midbudget action! I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Steven Seagal Three Word Title series, inaugurated by Above the Law in 1989 and maintained through to the year 1991 by equally dopey movies like Hard to Kill, Out for Justice, and today’s picture, Marked for Death!

Now, as you might guess, I don’t hold Seagal in terribly high regard, either as an action hero or as a person, based on what I’ve heard! But of course it’s not always the best idea to form an opinion based on rumour and innuendo! Such rumour and innuendo as there is insists that he’s a big blowhard who treats people terribly and plays up some kind of mob connections! Ha ha, I don’t know how much of that is true, but the personal qualities it implies are clearly detectable in his screen presence!

Marked for Death opens with Seagal’s character, John Hatcher, in Mexico, running down good old Danny Trejo of Con Air fame, shooting up a drugs den, and acting like even more of a jerk than he usually does, even to his putative partners! It turns out that at least some of this jerkiness is part of the performance, as we next see Hatcher in a confessional, telling the priest he doesn’t want to be such a knob any more! Ha ha, then he quits his job with the DEA, though his boss, played by good old Peter Jason from Prince of Darkness, doesn’t want to hear about it!

Next the ponytailed ex-cop heads for his home territory of Chicago, where he visits his sister and her family and hooks up with his longtime buddy Max, played by good old Keith David from They Live! He finds, to his dismay, that the old neighbourhood has been taken over by Jamaican drugs gangs, or “posses,” and Max is already prepared to take them on! A dread mon called Screwface, played by Basil Wallace from Return of the Living Dead III, is behind it all, and is much feared in the drugs gang community for his brutality and his voo-doo!

Seagal struts around looking ridiculous in dumb clothes he designed, or anyway chose, and speaking dumb words that he wrote, or claimed to, and wearing just the dumb expression you’d expect from, say, a caveman being shown a flashy card trick! In most of his movies, thanks to the crushing insecurity he feels every day, Seagal’s slapfight style involves mainly him delivering beatings on people and twisting limbs here and there, while never so much as feeling the brush of his opponent’s fingertips ‘pon his cheek! Here he at least gets a few bonks, and finds himself in a couple of sticky situations, as when the drugs gang crushes his beautiful Mustang with him inside, then tosses a Molotov cocktail in with him, or when they tie him down and prepare to sacrifice him to Damballa or someone similar!

Other characters include Joanna Pacula from Gorky Park and Black Ice, playing some kind of ill-defined expert who gets a crush on the kung-fu blockhead and is completely forgotten about by the end of the movie; and Tom Wright, the hitchhiker from Creepshow 2, playing a Jamaican cop on the hunt for Screwface so the movie can claim not to simply be a 90 minute anti-Jamaica slur! Other attempts to ward off criticisms the filmmakers clearly expected include a small speech about the tough lives led by the underclasses of Kingston, a little note at the tail end of the credits reading “The posse phenomenon is estimated to be a fraction of one percent of the Jamaican population and should not detract from their country or the contributions Jamaicans have made to this country,” and a cameo appearance by Jimmy Cliff of Club Paradise fame! But it all still seems a little bit mean!

It’s a pretty poor show, but it has a few pleasures! Seagal and his awful outfits have camp value of course, and the action is sometimes okay, sometimes ho-hum, but there are Special Makeup Effects, which I always like to see in an action movie! Ha ha, some of them, like a fake head for an eye-gouging scene, are a bit ropey, but that somehow makes them even better! Lots of early-90s action pictures seem coughed in from the 80s, and this, with its Reefer Madness-like sophistication about drugs and its hero who forswears violence only to renege immediately his loved ones are threatened, is certainly one of them!

It’s full of Jamaican accents and patois that are as phony as the bad guy’s blue eyes, and while it might be one of Seagal’s goriest movies (there’s a hand chopped off, a head chopped off, the requisite broken limbs and of course the eye gouge), it’s also one of his stupidest, and that’s really saying something! I give Marked for Death one inscrutable hand signal!


  1. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux28 May 2021 at 15:31

    Damn that Steven Seagal for real-world behavior so embarrassing as to make me embarrassed to be a fan! (BTW not trying to burlesque you, just feeling in a safe environment to indulge in my love of exclamation points!) But he's one of my favorite action guys-I'm about 10 years younger than you, I guess, so the right age. Not that we didn't love Sly and Arnold, but JCVD and Seagal were our mini-generational bag.

    I think Seagal's first four films, including this, are certified action classics. If it weren't for the dog subplot, which was clearly added in post production to soften the NYC grit, Out for Justice would be in the conversation for my favorite action movie. Also, if you haven't seen On Deadly Ground, I think you'll like it! Anyhow, what I think you're missing about Seagal is that , yeah, he's invincible in his movies. This seems to subvert the dramatic potential of wondering if he'll be able to best his foes, true, but it also makes it more little-boy wish fulfillmenty. Messing with me and enter a world of pain! For action cred, let's note that Bruce Lee mostly went for this approach as well. Contrast Stallone or JCVD, who seems to delight to getting beat, tied up, etc... to an extent that one wonders about their bedroom proclivites! Anyhow, a hallmark of Seagal movies is the redundant kill, recently aped by John Wick, and Screwface II's murder is the best of them all!

    Also, it's interesting that both this and Predator 2 came out in the same year and featured malign Jamaicans. Honestly, I recently caught P2 for the first time and had to remove my jaw from the floor when I saw how it made Marked for Death's portrayal of the island people look sensitive and informed! After 1990, it seems Hollywood decided that, no, Jamaicans are not acceptable action-movie villains.

    1. Ha ha! Thanks for the comment! This is definitely a safe space to laugh and use exclamation points, or not, as you prefer!

      I was never a Seagal fan, and yes, that's probably because I was out of my teenage years before I started watching his movies! Still, in my twenties I had a good friend called Pellonpaa, and when we were roommates, he and I consumed every Seagal and Van Damme picture we could get our hands on! So I do sort of understand the appeal! And I fully agree with you about the over-the-top redundant villain death! Those are always great! There was a good one in a movie I saw recently, Red Scorpion 2, and I think those are both features of the Van Damme picture Death Warrant and Stallone's goofy copshow Cobra!

      Anyway, thanks very much for your comment! I'm going to make a point of rewatching Out for Justice again soon! (I have seen On Deadly Ground, but don't remember much about it aside from a big speech Seagal makes! I tend to agree with him on environmental issues, so if I watch that one again, I might find that he and I are actually On Common Ground! Ha ha!)

    2. Ha ha, I've heard enough! I'll definitely watch it again! I have a couple of those four-movie all-Seagal DVD sets, and I believe it's on one of those!

  2. All Seagal's movies blend into one big blob in my mind (and he is a big blob now, in real life), though the earlier ones, which had actual budgets, I can separate from the later ones, where he sits down throughout, even doing martial arts seated.

    I do recall the anti-Jamaican sentiment in this one, though, and Seagal's desperately backtracking "Oh, um, SOME of them are all right, I suppose!" speech.

    1. I've heard about these newer Seagal pictures where he does sit-down fighting, but I frankly don't think I'll ever bring myself to watch one!