Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
Two rookie cops are killed by a drug-addicted prostitute (Pam Grier) and so the hunt is on to bring justice for the slain officers. With Captain Dugan (Sully Boyar) retiring, Captain Connolly (Edward Asner) is to take the lead of the South Bronx precinct with big plans of clearing cases even if the cops must go through extraordinary measures to do so. Officer Murphy (Paul Newman), however, doubts that any real changes can be made given that the status quo is deeply embedded in the marrow of the community.
“Fort Apache, the Bronx,” directed by Daniel Petrie, is a sometimes engaging but largely unfocused drama, weighed down by subplots that do not lead anywhere particularly compelling. The material is at its best when simply showing the lifestyles in the Bronx and how the community responds when the new captain pushes it to change with his unwavering idealism. Asner plays Captain Connolly with such intensity, one wonders the lines he might be willing to cross to prove his naysayers wrong.
The love story, which is supposed to be the heart of the picture given what each character symbolizes, between Murphy and a nurse (Rachel Ticotin) are nicely performed by Newman and Ticotin, but it is not written well enough as to create lasting impact. Perhaps Murphy and Isabella are too far in age so the effortless charm that the actors possess are not converted into genuine chemistry. Not once did I buy into them as a real couple; I was more interested in the partnership between Murphy and Corelli (Ken Wahl) either out in the field or just bantering in the car.
One of the cops in the precinct (Danny Aiello) commits a heinous crime. Although the screenplay introduces the idea of cops taking advantage of their roles as authority figures, it neither delves deeply nor asks discerning questions about responsibility, guilt, and ethical conduct. Instead, we are shown scenes of Murphy asking those he cares about, directly or indirectly, what he should do since he was a witness to the crime. It comes across very superficial, as if the screenplay were written by someone who had not seen or was not inspired by great, dramatic social pictures released in the ‘70s.
Grier is underused as the streetwalker who sets the plot in motion. She has one great scene with a drug dealer which really showcases her presence. I wished we got a chance to learn more about Charlotte’s life outside of the streets. Did she have a family? How is she like when she is not high on smack? What does her home look like? She is an important piece of the puzzle but one that is often brushed under the rug.
Written by Haywood Gould, one of the problems with “Fort Apache, the Bronx” is its lack of a defined center. On the sides are memorable faces and solid performances but the screenplay’s messages are often superficial and all over the place. For instance, the cops often turn their heads the other way even if they witness an act worthy of an arrest. From what we see here, it all works out eventually. The dramatic pull is weak.