Hammer is the name of 1972’s boxing blaxploitation film, and it’s also the last name of the heavyweight protagonist B.J. Hammer (Fred Williamson). It’s also meant to symbolize Hammer’s fists, because, you know, boxing metaphors. Hammer was another early film in the blaxploitation cycle, the second in Williamson’s career – The Legend of Nigger Charley began his legacy during the ’70s. And since blaxploitation was relatively new at the time, Hammer doesn’t fall into some of the same cliches as other later flicks tended to have – namely, criminal enterprises and revenge storylines. While Bruce D. Clark’s movie does have both of those elements, its main plotline – about an up-and-coming boxer training to become a champion – is unique to the subgenre, a story that focuses more on the drama of living within the high stakes world of boxing.
Hammer, a dock worker fired from his job for fighting with a fellow employee, gets picked up by Big Sid (Charles Lampkin), a boss working for an even more dangerous criminal who hires boxers, trains them, and then forces them to take falls to collect on the bets. It’s a criminal enterprise known to detective Davis (Bernie Hamilton), but he’s been unable to scrounge up evidence to prove it. Hammer, somewhat naive to the inner workings of Big Sid’s company, trains hard (think black Rocky) and fights well, but he’s surrounded by people who tell him that Big Sid’s paying people to take falls in the ring. He’s unable to give it up, however, until his girl Lois (Vonetta McGee) is kidnapped by the jive turkey Brenner (William Smith).
Hammer has very little of the traditional blaxploitation setup. For the most part, Clark spends the first half of the film documenting Hammer’s progress in his training. Sparring, running, and fighting are all big parts of the film, and Clark focuses on these somewhat boring moments instead of providing an overview of the criminal enterprise Big Sid works for. Likewise, he keeps the mysterious mafioso boss a secret – there’s only one meeting scene between Sid and the boss, and the camera is positioned so that the boss’ face is hidden. The only thing the viewer knows about him is that he’s white, the key factor in this blaxploitation flick that gives some merit to a film otherwise lacking a cultural moral.
In fact, Hammer is quite often a bland experience, not only because it spends such a long time not really doing anything but also because it fails to develop characters in meaningful ways. Hammer is such a naive and unsuspecting person that it’s almost difficult to root for him – he’s given many clues as to the type of people he’s fighting for, and still he’s unable to see past his current fame and glory. Lois, his love interest, is largely two-dimensional, simply a woman who is at first hard to get and then, later, a damsel in distress.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t make for a very compelling finale despite some good direction from Clark with the action sequences and the last boxing match. The lack of tension early on and the poor characterization of Lois is a one-two KO punch: while Hammer’s predicament seems important, there’s really little at stake besides him deciding whether to throw his championship match. The conclusion, too, nearly forgets that there’s a higher power other than Big Sid and his henchman Brenner; now that Hammer’s proven he won’t play ball, there’s bound to be more bad guys after him that won’t hesitate to just shoot him instead of going a couple rounds.
While Hammer presents an intriguingly different style of blaxploitation film that combines boxing with crime drama, the outcome isn’t good enough to recommend to most casual viewers. Clark’s direction is too unequal throughout Hammer, often trading between old-fashioned exploitative violence and mundane moments. Hammer doesn’t really deliver the blow its title promises.
Olive Films has released Hammer on a simple Blu-Ray, offering up the film in high definition – a good, if intentionally unenhanced, video – with serviceable audio master (though I found it a little muffled and difficult to hear at times). Other than that, not even a trailer to be found on this disc. However, Olive Films generally releases the film alone, without special features, and one can’t fault them for this.