Before he blazed across the drive-in screens in blaxploitation classics like BLACK CAESAR, THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY and HELL UP IN HARLEM, Fred Williamson made his starring debut in this story of boxing, drugs, and murder most foul. HAMMER is actually the film that made Williamson a household name, and it now makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Olive Films.
Williamson stars as B.J., known as "The Hammer" (which Fred still calls himself all these years later!), a former prize-winning boxer who's now working as a rough-and-tumble warehouse worker. When he beats the daylights out of a racist co-worker (John Quade, EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE) and gets fired, he is immediately embraced into the boxing world of Big Sid (Charles Lampkin, FIVE), a promoter who deals smack and pulls hits on the side. His right-hand man, Brenner (tough-as-nails B-movie regular William Smith, CHROME AND HOT LEATHER), does the really dirty work for him, like running down defecting pushers in dead-end alleys. Hammer thinks he has it made: he's got his career skyrocketing and Big Sid's beautiful secretary Lois (BLACULA's Vonetta McGee, looking lovely as ever) has taken a shine to him. But his street reputation is tarnished when he's accused of selling out to "The Man" by getting paid for kicking ass. Even worse, he's expected to take a fall in the ring for a lot of money or else Lois will die! Hammer teams up with a persistent cop (Bernie Hamilton, THE LOSERS) to bring down Big Sid and his syndicate.
HAMMER isn't exactly the defining Fred Williamson movie, but here is where his dashing smile, kick-ass action skills, and tough charisma won over urban audiences everywhere. Released by United Artists, it’s not bad as far as blaxploitation films go. It's got a good pace, lots of action, a compelling plot with likable characters and good performances (especially Smith, in one of his nastier bad guy roles), and a slam-bang ending, and it seemed the perfect vehicle to spearhead Williamson’s long-lasting movie career (in front of and behind the camera). The ample amount of red paint bloodshed, nudity and four-letter words give it that early 1970s grindhouse feel, and this could also be attributed to it being produced by independent exploitation film legend Al Adamson. This is one of the few films that the man behind SATAN’S SADISTS and DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN produced that he didn’t also direct. The director, young New Zealand-born Bruce Clark, also did the Roger Corman-produced NAKED ANGELS, and he would later work for him again on GALAXY OF TERROR. Clark handles the gritty inner-city drama and boxing scenes well, and this is one of those films that was made entirely on location in Los Angeles without the benefit of a studio.
The supporting cast also includes Mel Stewart (Henry Jefferson on “All in the Family”) as an honest boxing trainer who takes a beating because of it, D'Urville Martin (director and co-star of DOLEMITE) as a streetwise critic of Hammer’s fame who later comes to his rescue during the climax, and a pre-PENITENTIARY Leon Isaac Kennedy (here billed as “Leon Isaac”) can also be spotted. You'll also definitely enjoy seeing Marilyn Joi (billed as "Tracy Ann King, the hip with a whip!") and her wild night-club act. Joi is most memorable as Cleopatra Schwartz in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE and her eye-catching roles in ILSA HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHEIKS, NURSE SHERRI, and other Adamson drive-in masterpieces. And wait till you get a hold of Hammer's foul-mouthed ex-girlfriend (Nawana Davis, CISCO PIKE). And look carefully during a scene in a club for a dancing Fred Berry, some four years before he became a pop culture favorite on the popular “What’s Happening!!” sitcom. Make-up man Bob Westmoreland does a convincing job of making Hammer’s face swollen and bruised after the big fight, and the score (as well as several energetically belted-out tunes) is by soul legend Solomon Burke (of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” fame) who also scored COOL BREEZE around the same time.
When MGM first released HAMMER on DVD in 2004 in its home video debut, the transfer was full frame, open matte. Olive Films now presents the film in 1080p HD transfer preserving the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first time. The film’s low production budget is reflected in its image, but the Blu-ray offers a faithful, fetching reproduction of the film's original look. The original elements are in fine shape, with accurate colors that are nicely saturated, and except for a few badly lit scenes, detail is sharp. Generally speaking, this is a nice-looking transfer that retains a natural filmic appearance and in its better moments has good clarity. The audio is presented in a DTS-HD stereo track which sounds decent, well-mixing the clear dialogue and Burke’s score. There are no subtitle options or extras offered on the Blu-ray. (George R. Reis and Casey Scott)
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