At the risk of tarnishing my critical reputation, I have to admit that I’ve become a follower of Seagalogy. Before Steven Seagal became a punchline, he spent roughly eight years as one of the biggest action stars around. These films—what Seagalogy author Vern rightly refers to as “the Golden Era” of Seagal films—may not seem culturally significant, but they are. Seagal’s films accomplished two things few other action films achieve: a personal touch that hits on artfully repeated themes, motifs, and foibles not dissimilar from any of the great auteur filmmakers, and a political agenda completely at odds with traditional action films. Whereas most ’80s actioners boasted a jingoistic, rah-rah-U.S.A. feeling of Reagan-era patriotism, Seagal’s films had prescient obsessions with political corruption, the influence of corporations and organized crime on politicians and law enforcement, environmentalism, domestic terrorism, and the ineptitude with which the U.S. handled the “war on drugs.” With the notable exception of Marked for Death (coincidentally, the only film Seagal made for 20th Century Fox during his seven-picture deal with Warner Brothers), Seagal didn’t portray a one-man army kicking the asses of anti-American foreigners. In Seagal’s world, the biggest enemy the U.S. had to face was itself.
In many ways, Marked for Death is Seagal’s strangest studio film. It touches on the usual Seagal themes but takes them into new, unexpected directions. The mystical seriousness with which it takes Jamaican voodoo magic, for instance, lends a bizarre, verging-on-surreal quality to the proceedings. It also boasts, thanks to the terrific direction by Dwight H. Little, some of his most varied, wildly imaginative action sequences.
An early, slightly misguided treatise against illegal immigration, the film introduces John “Hatch” Hatcher (Seagal), a deep-cover DEA agent who has grown weary of U.S. drug policy. After a botched operation in Mexico (featuring a youngish Danny Trejo), Hatch retires and returns to his childhood home in Chicago. Now owned by his single-mom sister (Elizabeth Gracen), Hatch’s childhood bedroom remains a museum of his life. We learn Hatch’s entire backstory through the Lincoln Heights High School football jersey, antique gun collection, and photos adorning the walls: Suburban kid, Vietnam vet, animal lover, gun enthusiast, and athlete.
Hatch soon reconnects with his old pal Max (Keith David), who coaches football at their alma mater. The local Jamaican drug-dealing community frustrates Max to no end. He gripes that back in their day, the worst thing they had to worry about was the quarterback knocking up a cheerleader. Now, he faces players dying of crack overdoses. Max wants to fight back against the Jamaicans, but Hatch’s world-weary posturing prevents him. Hatch makes a compelling, if dismaying, case that it’s not worth fighting an unwinnable war. Max, a fellow Vietnam vet, understands what Hatch means.
When Jamaicans open fire at Mafiosi in a bar where Hatch and Max just happen to be sharing a drink, things get weird. Hatch intervenes and has one of the Jamaicans arrested (the others are killed), putting him on the radar of Screwface (Basil Wallace), a green-eyed Jamaican madman with weird, symbolic keloidal-scar tattoos peppering his face and back. Screwface sends a squad to do a drive-by shooting on Hatch’s sister’s house. Her daughter is shot, she blames Hatch, and suddenly the stakes are personal. Hatch no longer wants to sit idly by and let the Jamaicans take over.
From here, the stakes continue to ratchet up until Hatch finally goes to Jamaica, storms Screwface’s secured compound, decapitates him, and returns the head to Chicago to show to his disciples. This is the sort of movie Marked for Death is. A secretly sexy university professor (Joanna Pacula) informs Hatch of the rituals of voodoo Screwface and his gang believe very strongly in. A rum-spitting Screwface performs a disturbing ritual on Hatch’s sister, which he claims gives him ownership of her soul. Divorced from reality but amazingly entertaining, this is one of Seagal’s most underrated films.
One moment, in particular, struck me as emblematic of Seagal’s obsession with symbolism and mythologizing his action heroes. Shortly before the final confrontation, Screwface lays out a trap for Hatch. He drives his classic Mustang past some roadwork, only to discover a garbage truck has pinned him from behind and a bulldozer is headed right for him. As the two large vehicles squeeze the life out of his car, Screwface arrives with a rum-based molotov cocktail and the sage line, “Let me introduce you to my sister—the goddess of fire!” The escape sequence boasts imagery and sound design that I am convinced intentionally evokes birth. Effectively, this is the moment of Hatch’s symbolic rebirth, but simply showing him make the decision to take down Screwface once and for all isn’t enough for Seagal or Little. We have to literally see him reborn via an automotive birth canal. Normally, I’d be the first to admit when I read too much into something, but I have a rather alarming familiarity with Steven Seagal’s oeuvre, and such symbolism is not out of place.
The attention paid to bizarre, seemingly unnecessary details goes a long way toward putting this above many action films. Seagal obviously learned a lot from Andrew Davis (who worked intimately with Seagal on his first film, Above the Law, before they reteamed for Under Siege), a filmmaker whose work in the action genre is superior partly because of his willingness to fill his films with color and life that most action films ignore. Among other things, a standout moment in the film comes when Hatch and Max stock up on arms using a covert dealer from Hatch’s DEA days. As Hatch pays the man, he casually asks, “Still sober?” The dealer responds with stock 12-step aphorisms. It’s a completely unnecessary moment that instantly transforms a one-scene character into a real person.
The film also boasts some of Seagal’s most memorably offbeat dialogue, thanks in part to the weird patter from the Jamaicans. “Stop the blood clot cryin’! Everybody must dead!” Screwface screams to Hatch”s terrified sister. A weaselly Mob informant shouts at Hatch, “I’m Jimmy fuckin’ Fingers! I’m a made man!” just before Hatch shoots him in the head and whispers, “God made men.” After dispatching Jimmy fuckin’ Fingers, a disciple of Screwface called Monkey would rather dive out of an eight-story window than face Screwface’s punishment for being seen with Hatch. When Hatch returns to Max’s enormous Dodge Ram-Charger, he says simply, “One thought he was invincible; the other thought he could fly.” A confused Max replies, “So?” Hatch turns to him and expressionlessly states, “They were both wrong.” The film also has a twist ending so bizarre but so oddly fitting that I like to imagine it inspired a young M. Night Shyamalan, concluding with the (intentionally) funniest closing line in the history of action cinema.
Nobody other than Seagal made movies like this. Some may think there’s a very good reason for that, but I hold his Golden Era work in as high a regard as any of Joel Silver’s equally bombastic, idiosyncratic work. Like Silver, Seagal took a rote genre and made it his own, for better or worse. Marked for Death is not his best film, but it’s certainly his strangest, and that counts for something.