EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 20, 2008

Humor saves familiar boxing comedy 'The Hammer'

By Christy Lemire

'The Hammer'

21/2 stars out of 4

If "Rocky" was low-budget, famously costing about $1 million to make back in 1976, "The Hammer" is pretty much next-to-no budget — and that gives it a certain roughhewn charm.

Yes, this comedy about a sad-sack, has-been boxer is painfully predictable and manages to include every cliche of the genre, but executive producer and star Adam Carolla keeps it rolling along with his trademark, deadpan rants.

Inspired by Carolla's own story, "The Hammer" follows a former amateur fighter who now scrapes by as a carpenter and cardio-boxing instructor at the local gym. Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld vividly captures particularly nondescript, though recognizable, sections of suburban Los Angeles in Burbank and the San Fernando Valley.

Out of shape at age 40, Carolla's Jerry Ferro gets to step back into the ring when a legendary coach (the crusty Tom Quinn) spots the lanky southpaw and asks him to try out for the Olympic team as a light-heavyweight.

At the same time, just as his miserable girlfriend leaves him, Jerry gets involved with one of his students (Heather Juergensen, co-star of Herman-Wurmfeld's "Kissing Jessica Stein"). The two have some amusingly awkward dates, which give Carolla a chance to tee off on the absurdity of the La Brea Tar Pits fossil site, for example, and receive such loving, inspiring advice as, "Don't take too many shots to the face."

Screenwriter Kevin Hench is a longtime friend of Carolla's who has worked on "The Man Show," "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and Carolla's Comedy Central series, so he clearly knows his voice. Oswaldo Castillo as Carolla's best friend — a Nicaraguan immigrant named, appropriately enough, Oswaldo — really is a Nicaraguan immigrant whom Carolla befriended on a job site. And that gym in Pasadena where Jerry works? Carolla not only taught boxing classes there before making it big as a comedian and radio host, he and Castillo also helped build the place when they were still toiling in construction.

So there's a loose, easy familiarity to every element of "The Hammer," almost as if a bunch of buddies got together for a film-school project that somehow found its way into theaters. (Herman-Wurmfeld couldn't be described as a great craftsman by any stretch; the jump cuts get annoying, and probably weren't intended in an artsy way.) And yet these are people who have been around a while and are obviously aware of the familiarity of the boxing movie and all its conventions.

The been-around-the-block coach says all the right motivational things, but has a scuzzy side, too. Jerry is pitted against a tough, muscular light-heavyweight (former model Harold "House" Moore) who will, inevitably, become his ally. And when it comes time for Jerry to drop 15 pounds to make his goal weight of 178, his theme music is — you guessed it — "Eye of the Tiger." Only he hits the snooze bar for about four hours before getting out of bed to jog, jump rope, drink raw eggs and repeatedly weigh himself.

Which brings us to the most hackneyed sequence in any boxing movie, or any sports movie, for that matter: the montage. But as "Team America: World Police" so astutely pointed out, you need a montage. Even "Rocky" had a montage.