Mean Johnny Barrows (1976)
Having cemented his image of the tough no-nonsense hero on screen by the mid seventies, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, went one step further and made his directorial debut with this action packed tale of a Vietnam Vet caught up in a turf war between two opposing Mob families.
While doing so, Williamson, secured a roster of talent most film fans of the era would easily recognize and even had his MASH costar, Elliott Gould, turn up in a colorful cameo.
In a prologue where one can spot a young Leon Issac Kennedy, Williamson, gets busted out of the military for striking a superior officer. And yes the S.O.B. had it coming. So it’s back to L.A. where no sooner does he get off a bus late at night and he’s mugged and lying in the street. Shortly thereafter seeming incoherent, he’s arrested for vagrancy and bullied by a couple of cops at the station. A very Rambo feel 6 years prior to that character’s film debut.
It’s here that an on-duty Sargent recognizes Williamson and we’ll get a backdrop to his story. A one time football pro turned Vietnam war hero who now has nothing left to his name and upon release will soon be liviing on the streets and begging for a meal and any job available.
It’s at this point that Gould turns up and damn near steals the film over the course of his three minutes of screen time. He’s an oddball eccentric with an array of colors to match in his suit, scarf and socks. I’d call him a professional “bum” who shows Williamson a thing or two about scoring a free meal and handout.
Now on to the meat of the plot and bloodshed to follow.
Fred comes to the attention of Stuart Whitman, mobster and son to Luther Adler. The pair run both the town and a numbers racket and they don’t take kindly to the arrival of Mob King, Anthony Caruso, muscling in on their turf aided by his two sons, Roddy McDowall and Mike (Tarzan) Henry. Whitman is willing to put The Hammer on the payroll in case things get confrontational and violent.
Yes Roddy is miscast but I don’t give a damn. I’ve loved this character actor/star since I was old enough to imitate his ape walk. The one time Cornelius the Chimp runs a flower shop fronting for a drug trafficking ring and Henry handles the violence when Papa Caruso deems it necessary.
So while the “families” begin to struggle over who controls the town, Williamson, wants nothing to do with killing. He’s seen enough in Nam. Instead he hires on at R.G. Armstrong’s garage to do all the chores for little pay. Now if you know old R.G. you just know he’s not going to come across as a man you want to work for. Sure enough he’s going to attempt to take advantage of his new employee thus ending this latest attempt to go straight and fend off Whitman’s offers of cash and even possibly fringe benefits from sexy Jenny Sherman who is in the employ of Whitman, the one time Oscar nominee for 1961’s controversial film, The Mark.
When a meeting of the two Mob bosses fails to calm the seas, violence erupts leaving Adler dead and Whitman on life support. This and the fact that nasty Roddy has apparently raped and brutalized Miss Sherman has forced our would be hero’s hand. Enough is enough. This time the Hammer takes up the offer. 100K and a piece of land he can call his own to exterminate with extreme prejudice the Caruso operation.
Now up to this point, Williamson, hasn’t had a costume change but after receiving some spending money to take on the job of hitman, he not only comes up with some heavy artillery but a suit of clothes to match giving him the look of blaxploitation’s James Bond.
This is The Hammer the paying crowd has come to see.
The bodies begin to pile up but it’s not a straight forward revenge story as one might expect. There are some curve balls thrown at us and while I do enjoy seeing The Hammer get nasty in the action sequences and the hand to hand combat thrills (even if some come off as phony and laughable …. sorry Hammer) there’s just a little too much plot towards the fadeout that begs the statement “you got to be kidding me” at the fadeout.
With this title being available in most any bargain bin for years on budget labels, I’ve no idea why it took me so long to finally sit down and watch it. More so considering I’m a fan of a damned near everyone in the cast from Hammer, to Roddy to long time character actor Anthony Caruso. It’s Caruso who fits the casting better than anyone involved followed by Adler. As the sons of Mob Dons, Roddy, Mike and Stuart just don’t ring true for me. Perhaps it’s the fact that none of them look or sound remotely Italian?
Ah, the hell with it. Enjoy it for what it is. A 70’s low budget action flick starring the charismatic man with a cigar in hand and in case you’re interested I caught up with Johnny Barrows on blu ray thanks to a release on Code Red. Comes with an enjoyable twenty minute Hammer interview where he regales us with some stories of his early career in the film business from Altman to Preminger and so forth.
Finally, here’s one useless piece of trivia. I spotted actor Robert Phillips as one of Caruso’s soldiers. Despite a number of small parts and uncredited appearances over a forty plus year career, I can only think of one film when cornered that he appeared in. My all time favorite, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen where he plays Cpl. Morgan at the prison that houses our twelve less than military like, soon to be war heroes.
As I said, useless …….