‘Hammer’ Introduces One of Blaxploitation’s Most Popular Figures

Significant for its launch of Fred Williamson's career, Hammer is a typical entry into the blaxploitation fold, a cauldron of genre tropes that never really reaches a boiling point.

Five minutes into Hammer, and already there’s a fistfight. This is not at all unusual for a blaxploitation film, but here the scene merely serves to introduce one of the genre’s now most celebrated affiliates, Fred Williamson. A former football player who transitioned into film following a guest role on the ’60s TV series Ironside, Williamson cornered the blaxploitation market throughout the ‘70s. His genial demeanour and handsome ladykiller features offered an alternative to the badass vigilante typical of these films — though Williamson was more than capable of being badass, to be sure.

Hammer was Williamson’s proper introduction to the blaxploitation market, a testing ground to see if he could pass muster as an antihero from the rough side of the tracks. Hammer is the story of an amateur boxer (Williamson in the titular role) who is recruited by some seriously shifty honchos looking to cash in on their starry-eyed prized fighter. Hammer trains daily, also finding time to flirt with his quiet but tough-as-nails manager, Lois (Vonetta McGee), who is attracted to Hammer but puts him in his place when she needs to. Hammer is somewhat leery of his handlers; he suspects some shady business with the head boss at first (his suspicions later confirmed with the instances of outright killings), but he loves his newfound fame and the idea of a love affair with Lois. Things get particularly dirty when the head boss starts messing about in drug deals; murderous thugs are dispatched and there is the unsightly mess of (obviously) fake blood, staining the floors and walls.

There isn’t much to Hammer than what you would find in your average blaxploitation. If anything, the film pretty much goes through the motions without too much fuss. There’s the obligatory slayings, the soft-focus sex scenes, the kitschy ‘70s-esque jive-talking, and the good-hearted (sometimes bull-headed) lead. Just about every cliché regarding pimps, street kids, hookers and hitmen is thrown into a cauldron that never really reaches a boiling point. What the film does do successfully is present one of blaxploitation’s more charismatic figures. Williamson has charm to spare, and his good-natured humour and easy smiles make it very clear that he wasn’t taking himself all too seriously while making this film.

If you are a stickler for cheap, easy thrills and not particularly hung up on harder-edged social commentary (which some blaxploitation films do indeed have), then this might be up your alley. Anyone who has an interest in revisiting the sun-bleached streets of a ’70s LA (and the humid nights and sweaty dives of the city), will also find something to like here. Otherwise, this is pretty much the average midnight TV fare, which is probably how most people saw this film.

Olive Films’ Blu-ray transfer is adequate. This is a film from 1972, so the low-budget source material reveals its limitations. But the picture has been cleaned up considerably (though be aware that there are moments of very heavy grain, especially during the night time sequences). Sound comes through nicely enough and you can expect the usual soundtrack of early ‘70s soul-funk. This is a bare-bones disc and no extras to speak of.

Hammer is mostly significant for its launch of Fred Williamson’s career. Williamson proved to be a pretty shrewd businessman when it came to marketing himself and financing his films (he would later become a producer and director). The actor reportedly arranged lucrative licensing deals when he learned that much of Europe was banking off of his films unfairly, prompting him to revise certain transatlantic deals and broaden the appeal of blaxploitation films worldwide. Williamson would go on to make the far more popular Black Caesar (1973) in which the actor played a ruthless gangster, albeit an immensely debonair one. If you care to see the birth of one of blaxploitation’s most popular figures, then give Hammer a look. If you’re looking for a really great blaxploitation film, however, you can pass on this one.

RATING 5 / 10