| June 6, 2015

Some posters for 1972’s Hammer declare “Hammer is a black explosion!” as seen above. Another tagline teases us with the promise that we’ll get to see star Fred Williamson playing a character who “risks death to fight his way out of the mob!” Admittedly that first tagline is a tad overly ambiguous. It also may be racially problematic too, of course, though certainly no more so than the titles of a couple other Williamson pictures. But how about the second tagline? That sounds pretty good, right? Kickass Fred Williamson kicking gangster ass? I read that and I thought, boy, sign me up!

Now, it’s not like I expected much of the film when I first saw it. Hammer needn’t be as incredible a picture as Three the Hard Way (1974) or anything, just so long as it lived up to that promise of Williamson playing a man fighting the mob. And fight the mob he does… sort of. He fights some mobsters a couple times right in the very end of the movie. Otherwise, almost every Williamson fight in the film is restricted to the boxing ring, as the titular B.J. Hammer is indeed a boxer. The other, non-boxing mobster fight scenes then sadly fail to feature Williamson at all.

Therein lies the real bummer of Hammer: it focuses far more on the mobsters and their dealings at times than it does our hero fighting said mobster. Hammer’s really a film about fame and the proclivity of the down-on-his-luck man to sell his moral self out if he finds a way to avoid living hand-to-mouth ever again. This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate a good bit of social commentary, but even in that Hammer has trouble living up to its promise as the film spends far more time than is probably necessary with the gangsters, particularly the horribly racist Brenner (William Smith of David Cronenberg’s Fast Company (1979), which I do adore). As such, when Hammer sells out to the mob early on in the picture, we effectively know nothing about him other than the fact that he’ll help a guy out if a bully uppercuts said guy in the groin. We know virtually nothing of him and the travails that led to his decision to join the mob, and we really need to because, well, he joins the mob at the outset of the film!

Make no mistake, though Hammer isn’t 100% certain he’s joining the mob, he’s told pretty clearly that that’s the case. And he’s told this by a police officer who’s trying to dig up dirt on Hammer’s new boss, Big Sid. However, Hammer won’t hear him out, and since we didn’t get to know Hammer very well at the outset of the film, the character just comes off abrasively shallow in his decision to work for Big Sid. It’s not until about halfway through the movie that the filmmakers put in the legwork necessary to characterize Hammer as a good man led astray. Sure, better late than never, I say, but ultimately very little comes of it all as Hammer winds up being virtually powerless in the climax of his own movie, forced to fight a boxing match while his detective friend goes about saving the day.

Overall, Hammer’s a solid picture that adequately addresses many of the same issues other Blaxploitation films did: in particular, the limited opportunities afforded to some based solely on their skin color. On the whole though, the film simply doesn’t live up to the promise. From its taglines to its shamelessly Shaft­-inspired theme song to the first fight between the aforementioned bully and a hook-brandishing Williamson, everything points toward an action experience the film doesn’t deliver on until the last three minutes.

Is this an instance of better late than never or too little too late? It depends on how much you like Fred Williamson Blaxploitation pictures. As a fan of both Williamson and Blaxploitation cinema, I’ve always overlooked these issues, revisiting Hammer on more than one occasion. That said, I expect the distanced and inactive Hammer himself will prove indefensibly off-putting for many viewers.

If you’re drawn to Blaxploitation as I am, though, you’ll be happy to find that Hammer is one of four Blaxploitation pictures that Olive Films will be unveiling on Blu-ray and DVD on June 9th, 2015, including three films starring the legendary Pam Grier: Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) and Friday Foster (1975). The picture on the Blu-ray release of Hammer shows a fair amount of speckling and of course the few shots that were clearly shot out-of-focus during production are unfocused here as well. Speckling aside, the film looks fantastic otherwise with a rich grain structure, deep shadows, decent sharpness all around, and rich colors particularly evident in the bright red blood used during production.

If you already own the previous release of Hammer on DVD from the MGM Soul Cinema line and are wondering whether it’s worth upgrading from that to the Olive release, I’ve got you covered. I took the liberty of breaking out my copy of the Truck Turner/Hammer double feature to compare transfers. And you know what I found that somehow completely slipped my mind since last watching it? The old MGM DVD of Hammer is tragically cropped down to 1.33:1 from its original 1.85. To me, this makes upgrading to the Olive Films disc an imperative!

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: Video and DVD

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