Marked Man (1996): Piping Hot

A moment of appreciation for ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and one of his finest performances from Matty.

The late ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper was a captivating performer. As a wrestler, he was one of the best to ever lace up a pair of boots, his skills in the ring matched only by his ability on the mic. A master of trash talk, Piper’s barbs were almost Shakespearean and he excelled at playing the villain (or a ‘heel’ for those in the know). Interesting, then, that of the many brilliant turns that typify Piper’s criminally underappreciated career as an actor, it’s two the inverse of this that are the standouts. The first, of course, is his big screen debut, They Live (1988): a John Carpenter classic that needs no introduction. The second is MARKED MAN: a lively and occasionally touching riff on The Fugitive (1993), shot on the cheap in Piper’s home turf of Canada in summer ‘95 during a sabbatical from the WWE (née WWF). 

Both They Live and Marked Man — ahem — pit Piper as blue collar, everyman heroes with minimal dialogue, allowing him to carry the bulk of each picture with his raw physical presence. However, Marked Man is the superior dramatic offering. While the pair of them share a similar narrative and structure (at their core, both find Piper pursued by forces he doesn’t quite understand as the deck is increasingly stacked against him), beneath its Regan-era satire, They Live is a pulpy, ‘50s-style B-movie throwback. There, Piper’s iconic John Nada is simply an archetype; the embodiment of the American working class ideal and a conduit for director Carpenter’s scathing social commentary. Here, in the gritty and pathos-strewn Marked Man, Piper’s Frank Gibson is a more intimately presented and emotionally substantial creation. Having been sentenced to three years inside after a punch thrown in a fit of grief-addled rage results in the accidental death of the drunk driver who killed his fiancée, Gibson’s relatively uneventful stint behind bars is curtailed when he witnesses the assassination of another inmate, David Nichols’ dodgy businessman, by two corrupt guards. Framed for the hit, Gibson flees his low-security holding pen and embarks on a cross-country odyssey to clear his name and uncover the real reason for the crime.

Ostensibly a chase flick-cum-conspiracy thriller, for all its exciting and brilliantly done scenes of running, shooting, and brawling (kudos to stunt coordinator Michael Scherer for letting Piper sneak a clothesline and a dropkick in), journeyman helmer Marc F. Voizard’s engaging and fast-paced film is a quietly uplifting paean to the endurance of the human spirit; a story of loss, heartache, redemption, and trying to do the right thing — albeit not always in the most appropriate or level-headed way.

Generally well scripted by Thomas Ritz (who also penned producer Pierre David’s Martial Outlaw (1993), Open Fire (1994), and The Killing Grounds (1997)), where Marked Man drops a, erm, mark is in Ritz’s rendering of everyone else’s character bar Piper’s fascinating lead. A ponytailed Miles O’Keeffe as the film’s big bad aside, the rest of the cast — which includes Jane Wheeler, Christopher Bolton, and Seduce Me: The Pamela Principle 2 (1994) stunner Alina Thompson — bleed into the background. It’s nothing too distracting; just a bit of step down considering how much care has been put into making Gibson seem so relatably flawed and appealing.

Produced by David and fellow Canadian B-movie merchant Tom Berry [1], Marked Man arrived on U.K. VHS in August 1996 via First Independent. Stateside, the film ran on Cinemax at the back end of the year before being issued on cassette by LIVE Entertainment on 21st January 1997 — incidentally, within a month of the Piper-starring Sci-Fighters (1996) landing on U.S. video store shelves through Triboro.

Canada ● 1996 ● Action, Thriller ● 94mins

Roddy Piper, Jane Wheeler, Miles O’Keeffe,  Alina Thompson ● Dir. Marc F. Voizard Wri. Thomas Ritz

[1] In a fun bit of set decoration, posters for a few of David and Berry’s preceding co-productions — notably Psychic (1991), The Paperboy (1994), and Marked Man’s gender-flipped companion piece, The Wrong Woman (1995) — can be seen when Wheeler comes sauntering out of a pool hall.

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