Marked for Death ★★★½

Twentieth Century-Fox released Steven Seagal’s third movie just a few months after his second, HARD TO KILL, was a box office hit for Warner Brothers. MARKED FOR DEATH was his most violent film to date (gore was cut to avoid an X rating) and pits Seagal against a terrifying villain, a green-eyed voodoo priest named Screwface, played by the menacingly charismatic Basil Wallace (BLOOD DIAMOND).

Seagal is John Hatcher, a burned-out DEA agent who retires from crime-busting and returns to his childhood home in the Chicago suburbs (played unconvincingly by Los Angeles) and peaceful reunions with his family and his old Vietnam War buddy, high school football coach Max (Keith David). It isn’t long, however, before Hatcher has run afoul of the Jamaican drug gangs taking over.

Having not seen Seagal’s previous movies, the Jamaicans don’t understand that messing with his family is a bad idea. After a drive-by shooting puts a Hatcher in the hospital, John, Max, and Jamaican cop Charles (Tom Wright) “A-Team” together some primitive weaponry and open multiple cans of whoopass on Screwface and his dope operation.

POLTERGEIST writers Mark Victor and Michael Grais’ script is full of clichés, but it moves quickly with little fat or pretension and lets the proficient director Dwight H. Little (RAPID FIRE) go to town with loud shootouts, explosions, chases, and bone-breaking fight scenes. A melee in a glass-filled jewelry store is a highlight, as is the climax pitting Seagal against Wallace with swords. The two actors and their characters are well-matched, but poor Joanna Pacula’s (GORKY PARK) scenes appear to have been sliced and diced in the editing process.

Danny Trejo, who later played the hero to Seagal’s villain in MACHETE, is here too, along with Arlen Dean Snyder, Kevin Dunn, Peter Jason, Earl Boen, and other pros. Seagal, who didn’t get along with HARD TO KILL director Bruce Malmuth, bickered with his co-producers Victor and Grais over screenwriting credit, which the actor lost in Writers Guild arbitration. Regardless of who wrote what, MARKED FOR DEATH was Seagal’s second straight film to open at #1 and led to the even better OUT FOR JUSTICE.