Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Blaxploitation Operation: Hammer (1972)

Hammer 1
Some films survive just based on the strength of the personalities starring in them. Take 1972’s Hammer for instance, a film that is flawed in nearly every aspect of its production from the script to the direction and yet it remains immensely watchable, thanks to the aura of its stars Fred Williamson and Vonetta McGee. Hammer is not a good film, hell it’s not even a particularly good exploitation film, but every time Williamson and McGee are on screen all of its faults and flaws just fall away.
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The Al Adamson produced Hammer came out in the late summer of 72 and it is mostly remembered as one of the film’s that gave the mighty Fred Williamson one of his first starring roles. Directed with very little finesse by Bruce D. Clark, a filmmaker with only one other credit to his name after this (1981’s Galaxy of Terror) and featuring a good if very spare score by legendary Philadelphia soul man Solomon Burke, Hammer tells the rather tired and routine story of a struggling boxer under the thumb of a corrupt and savagely unfair system.
Hammer 9
Producer Adamson is of course best known as the director of such horror exploitation titles such as Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) and Blood of Ghastly Horror (1972) but he didn’t limit himself to any one genre and he tried his hand at Blaxploitation several times, with Hammer being the first. He would later go onto produce and direct such titles as Black Heat (1976), Black Samurai (1977) and perhaps most memorably the infamous Nurse Sherri (1978). I’ve often wondered how involved Adamson was with Hammer’s production and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had his hand in some of its direction although I can’t say for sure.
Hammer 7
With a killer cast surrounding Williamson and McGee, including the awesome William Smith (one of the cinema’s great bad guys), Bernie Hamilton, Mel Smith and D’Urville Martin, and some surprisingly stylish nice photography from first time cinematographer Robert Steadman, the biggest problem that plagues Hammer is its by the number script by Charles Johnson. Johnson, who would later write the much stronger Blaxploitation productions Slaughter’s Big Rip Off and That Man Bolt (both 1973), was also making his debut with Hammer and there is nothing to separate the film from any other exploitable product of the early seventies with the exceptions of Williamson and McGee, but trust me brother they are two potent exceptions.
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I’ve praised McGee here before for her performance in Gordon Parks Jr’s stunning Thomasine and Bushrod and she is impressive here as well. One of the seventies most stunning looking women, McGee radiates a real intelligence and more than holds her own with the imposing Williamson. The two are quite a team and Hammer really comes alive in their scenes together. A smarter crew would have abandoned Johnson’s predictable script and just made a complete love story for Williamson and McGee.
Hammer 10
Williamson is incredible in the film. Cool, unbelievably handsome and projecting the kind of casual but ferocious charisma most actors can’t even dream of, Williamson is unforgettable in Hammer and he’s great even though the material isn’t. Williamson is also a good actor and, even in this early role, that is obvious even though both he and McGee are so much better than the material they are given here.
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I don’t mean to be too hard on Hammer as it is an entertaining picture (with some fairly striking boxing sequences and one solid chase sequence) but it ultimately isn’t among the more memorable productions of the seventies most distinctive and prolific genre.
Hammer 5
MGM’s DVD is a full-frame disappointment that makes the film seem even less than it is, with boom mike shadows creeping in constantly due to the inaccurate framing. The print itself is nice and it’s a shame MGM made the odd decision to not release this widescreen as most of their Soul Cinema series features at least that courtesy. A trailer is the only extra on hand and the reasonably priced disc is fairly easy to find as it is still in print.

5 comments:

J.D. said...

You're so right about William Smith being one of the cinema’s great bad guys. I loved his work in Coppola's films. Small parts but he made 'em count.

Jeremy Richey said...

Yea, Smith is an amazing guy who never gets the credit he desreves...

J.D. said...

'Tis true. I love how he pronounces "Motorcycle Boy" in RUMBLE FISH. Classic.

The King Of Cool said...

I agree with you. Not a great film, but entertaining to watch. Williamson is my favorite of the blaxploitation actors. He's always good whether the movie sucks or not. William Smith was always a good movie villain.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith...I love Fred in everything he does...such a great screen presence and an undervalued actor.