By film number three, it was up to Seagal to prove whether or not he was a flash in the pan.  He’d had a promising debut with Above The Law but experienced a sophomore slump with Hard To Kill, a haphazardly plotted opus that showed the weaknesses in his developing formula.  Thankfully for Seagal, Marked For Death offered an improvement on Hard To Kill that shored up the distinctive elements of his formula while minimizing the weaknesses.  As a bonus, it also added in a bit of tropical flavor and a memorable villain, to boot.

Marked For Death offers a memorably odd premise for Seagal’s stern presence to bounce off of: in typical Seagal style, he plays John Hatcher, a DEA agent who burns out on his job when his partner is killed during a mission in Colombia.  He returns home to Chicago to plot his next move but soon discovers the drug war isn’t finished with him.  In fact, it has shown up in his neighborhood in the guise of Screwface (Basil Wallace), a Jamaican drug lord who is infiltrating the area with his rasta drug pushers(!).

Hatcher tries to stay out of the trouble but soon discovers he has no choice but to fight back when his family is caught in the crossfire.  He brings the fight to Screwface, forcing him to retreat to Jamaica when the heat gets too intense.  However, Hatcher has no intention of backing off.  Teaming up with former schoolmate Max (Keith David) and Jamaican-expatriate cop Charles (Tom Wright), Seagal picks up a cache of special-ops weaponry and heads to Jamaica to fight Screwface on his own turf.  Cue plenty of bone-breaks and bullet hits, plus a likeably goofball plot twist and a guest appearance from Jimmy Cliff (!!!).

The end result is a big step up from the doldrums of Hard To Kill.  For starters, it benefits from a solid script by Michael Grais and Mark Victor, who are perhaps best known for writing the first two Poltergeist movies.  They don’t exactly innovate on characterization or action-flick plot structure but what they assembled here works and is engaging.  They created one of the better Seagal movie villains in Screwface and they also devised a number of hard-hitting action sequences spiced up with oddball touches, like a fatal bullet delivered by a gun-toting, fully nude hooker and an attack on Seagal’s car that happens on a peaceful suburban street.

Better yet, the film has a strong director in Dwight Little.  He’s known today for his prolific work in episodic television but he had a good run from the mid-1980’s through the 1990’s as a journeyman director of genre fare, notching up hits with films like Halloween 4 and Murder At 1600.  He brings a subtly stylish professionalism to Marked For Death, playing out its comic book elements in a straight-faced manner and maintaining a cracking pace.  Better yet, he’s an inspired technician when it comes to action sequences: his best achievement here is an astonishing setpiece near the midpoint that starts off as a car chase before the participants crash through a luxury department store, at which point it becomes a fantastic gun-fight/bone-crunching fight sequence.  It’s one of the best action sequences in any Seagal film.

Finally, and most importantly, Seagal has a good supporting cast to back him up here.  This is important as Seagal’s stoic “guy from the neighborhood” routine works best when the people around him have the chops to balance him out without overshadowing him.  David is reliable man of action and does solid work here in the “best friend” role while Joanna Pacula adds a bit of sexiness to an otherwise obligatory exposition-dump role as a professor who fills Seagal in on Screwface’s voodoo practices. That said, the best support work comes from Wallace as the evil druglord: he is an amusingly gleeful villain, sarcastically referring to Seagal as “de Hatcher boy” and beating the crap out of his subordinates when he hears news that displeases him.

In short, Marked For Death is a programmer but it’s an enjoyable throwback to the days when such programmers had enough resources and ambition to deliver the goods.  While it never hits the peaks of Above The Law or Under Siege, it still ranks as one of the best films from Seagal’s classic era thanks to the quality action and the colorfully eccentric plot.