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.