Film Review: Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)


Film stars in the traditional meaning of the word – actors or actresses that can turn film into box office hit by appearing in it – are very rare these days. Few decades ago it was quite different matter, when the big names on the poster could actually bring audiences to watch films with rather unattractive and depressive content. One of such stars was Paul Newman whose presence elevated Forth Apache, The Bronx, 1981 crime drama directed by Daniel Petrie.

In this film Newman plays the protagonist, NYPD officer Murphy. He is stationed in 41st Precint which covers South Bronx, area of New York that looks like it was subjected to nuclear bombardment. Buildings that are still standing contain overcrowded apartments whose inhabitants, mostly Puerto Ricans, are impoverished, uneducated, chronically unemployed and usually have to rely on drugs, prostitution and petty crime to make ends meet. Law enforcement under such condition is a very difficult task and the policemen often see their station, nicknamed “Fort Apache”, like a fort trying to control hostile territory. Murphy is a veteran who still tries to do the right thing, but the advanced age and bitter experience made him jaded and sometimes tolerant both of petty crime on the street and his colleagues who try to improve his income by looking the other way. Things get complicated when two inexperienced policemen get killed by drugged-out prostitute Charlotte (played by Pam Grier), just as the 41st Precint gets new commander, idealistic and crusading Captain Dennis Connelly (played by Ed Asner). His campaign to find the killer at any cost escalates tensions between police and local community, just as Murphy begins romantic relationship with beautiful Puerto Rican nurse Isabella (played by Rachel Ticotin). Tensions lead to riot and further violence, including the incident in which Murphy and his young partner Andrew Correlli (played by Ken Wahl) witness killing of an innocent teen by other policemen.

Made a decade before Giuliani began to clean up New York City, Fort Apache, The Bronx presents one of the most apocalyptic and depressive visions of decaying metropolis. A whole section of the city looks like depressive wasteland, where the inhabitants are often subjected to random and irrational violence. Police is either inefficient or corrupt, and even the medical institutions are connected to booming drug trade. Daniel Petrie, Canadian director best known for his work in television, displays all that depressive content in a realist, almost documentarian style, replacing tight conventional plot with series of vignettes that expose character background of Murphy. Some of those segments work, while others, like the scene depicting Corelli and his girlfriend, don’t serve any meaningful purpose and only unnecessarily lengthen the film. Petrie and his scriptwriter Heywood Gould try to make plot as depressive as possible, with characters actions becoming pointless or never achieving anything. Charlotte’s motive for killings aren’t properly explained and her character, by ironic twist, ends up as victim of equally pointless killing, and murders of policemen never get resolved. Murphy’s attempt to find some happiness with Isabella is doomed when it turns out that she is a heroin addict who would, predictably, succumb to her addiction before the end and leave Murphy devastated.

The only thing that makes this film watchable is Newman’s strong performance. His world-weary character wears the cynicism as badge of honour and enhances it with gallows humour and entertaining “buddy buddy” banter with his partner. Newman in this film didn’t hesitate to show his age, especially in the scenes when his attempts to chase much younger criminals had predictable results. Only at the end film allows Murphy to display some heroic action you could expect from conventional Hollywood film, when the conveniently mishandled drug arrest at the hospital leads to disturbing hostage situation. Forth Apache, The Bronx, despite its flaws, is watchable film, although it could be best recommended to the fans of gritty ultra-realistic police dramas.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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