Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Off the Shelf: Hammer (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
A blaxploitation classic!

One of the best things about the blaxploitation movement was that it created a bunch of stars that might not have otherwise had the careers they had. Yes, the movies in which they appeared during the 1970s were awesome, but there's a reason people like Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Richard Roundtree and Jim Brown had careers past the point that blaxploitation had fallen out of favor. It's because they're real-deal movie stars -- strong, charismatic and cool. These are actors that tear up the screen no matter what genre they're working in.

Fred "The Hammer" Williamson is one of the greatest stars to come out of the blaxploitation scene. It's not where he got his start; after several successful seasons playing football with the Steelers, the Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs (with whom he won lost the first-ever Super Bowl), Williamson moved into acting with a role on the Diahann Carroll sitcom Julia. He appeared in an episode of Star Trek ("The Cloud Miners") and had a small role in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H before blowing up in genre movies like Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem and Three the Hard Way. Williamson was larger than life both on screen and in life, quickly seizing control of his control and famously insisting on three rules for any movie in which he would appear: 1) He can't be killed in a movie. 2) He has to win his fights and 3) He gets the girl IF HE WANTS HER. Only Williamson can get away with that kind of hubris. He's got the macho swagger to back it up.
One of his earliest film roles -- and the one that cemented him as a movie star -- is 1972's Hammer, named for Williamson's own football nickname (given to him because of how he would hammer players on the field). He plays B.J. Hammer, a boxer with ties to the mob. When gangsters try to take over Hammer's career and demand that he throw a match -- going so far as to kidnap his girlfriend to make sure that he complies -- Hammer has to fight back the only way he knows how: like a BOSS.

Hammer is a solid crime picture that, while lacking the thrilling subversion and vitality of Larry Cohen's Black Caesar and its sequel Hell Up in Harlem, still makes a really strong starring vehicle for Williamson. He's not yet the larger-than-life screen icon he would become in just a few years. In fact, he's one of the most grounded elements in the movie -- the "normal" character surrounded by the more colorful criminal elements. Hammer is part of a long tradition of movie boxers mixed up with a criminal element that includes everything from Robert Wise's The Set-Up to, of course, the Bruce Willis character in Pulp Fiction. Like so many blaxploitation films, Hammer reclaims this cinematic archetype for black actors and black audiences, telling a familiar story but through a new lens.
Director Bruce Clark only made four movies in his career but clearly knew his way around schlock; besides Hammer, he's responsible for Naked Angels (1969), The Ski Bum (1971) and the Roger Corman-produced Galaxy of Terror in 1981. His work on Hammer isn't all that stylish or authorial and he actually tends to lose focus at times, but Clark knows how to make a moment counts when he needs to. The bursts of violence are sudden and brutal and bloody, lending a real sense of danger to Hammer's predicament. There is a romance montage about halfway through the movie that's also really great, because even as it lingers on formulaic romance novel sex Clark's camera shows Williamson and Vonetta McGee (playing his love interest Doris) laughing and genuinely liking one another. It's a really sweet moment that further cements the movie's stakes -- we want these two characters to survive and get out from under the mob's thumb and not just because it's a forgone conclusion that they will.

So while Hammer isn't my favorite blaxploitation movie -- or even my favorite Fred Williamson movie -- it's incredibly important in advancing both the genre and the career of its leading man. I'm so excited that Olive Films have released a number of seminal blaxploitation movies this month (this one and three from Pam Grier), and during #Junesploitation no less! Does this mean we might still get titles like Slaughter or Black Mama, White Mama or the aforementioned Black Caesar? We can only hope.

Blu-ray release date: June 9, 2015
92 minutes/1972/R
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)

Buy Hammer from Olive Films here


  1. Minor correction Patrick - Williamson did play in the first Super Bowl, but his Chiefs lost (quite badly) to the Packers.

    Fred's great tho. It's not a good movie, but I love everything he does in Starsky & Hutch. His delivery of the line "WHY are you touching him?" is award-worthy.