The neighbourhood patrolled by the 41st Precinct of the NYPD had something of an infamous and ignoble reputation which ultimately shaped the station house itself; a decaying, crumbling solitary monolith nicknamed 'Fort Apache', it presided over a hostile environment that had high unemployment, high crime rates and a high number of non English speaking immigrants. Its problems were well documented in the press, police memoirs and TV documentaries. Another document was added in 1981 thanks to the Daniel Petrie film Fort Apache, The Bronx starring Paul Newman as jaded patrol officer Murphy.
There's a disclaimer at the start of Fort Apache, The Bronx that states that as the film is concerned with law enforcement then it naturally must also be concerned with law breakers and, as such, The Bronx and the men and women trying to make something good and live honest and decent lives in that disadvantaged borough of New York will be overlooked.
Well, what a wasted opportunity. Because there was a genuine chance to produce something here that was socially realistic and had a thought provoking message about the community the film crew descended upon. Why couldn't they have focused some of the storyline on those trying to turn the neighbourhood around like social workers and community groups and the like? It would certainly have made for a more interesting movie than this frustrating mish mash of tropes usually served up in 70s TV cop dramas and old John Wayne movies.
It truly is a bizarre movie with storylines that initially seem important but lead to absolutely nowhere. Take Pam Grier's turn as a junkie prostitute for example; we first see her in the film's opening scene wandering the streets seemingly doped up only to suddenly sharpen up and blow two cops away. Suddenly the boys of the 41st are on the hunt for a cop killer and the audience settles in. A few scenes later and Grier's slicing the carotid artery of one unlucky 'John' with a razor blade she had secreted in her mouth - talk about the kiss of death! By now the audience is wondering just when Newman and his swaggering Italian Stallion partner (Ken Wahl) will join the dots. Then a few more scenes later, Grier tries the stunt with a Puerto Rican smack dealer and he stabs her to death! End of story and the crimes go unsolved. There's no completion, there's no insight into her character's motivation....NOTHING.
I guess the writer was trying to say something here; that real life isn't as cut and dried as Hollywood. But that kind of statement jars incredibly when everything around it reeks not of reality, but of, at best, Hollywood and, at worse, of a dreadful TV movie or third rate episode of TJ Hooker.
Then there's the story strand where Newman witnesses fellow cop Danny Aiello kill an innocent bystander and it's clear to all that from there on in the film wants to be Serpico, without seemingly realising that Serpico the film has beaten them to it by eight years. And then there's eye rolling moments that depict Newman delivering a baby (to prove his soft side) or abseiling down the side of a hospital to break up a hostage situation (to prove his tough side) or act even wackier than the knife wielding wacko to get him to surrender (to prove his funny side), or tossing his badge at the Captain (to prove his idealistic side)....it's every hoary old cliche in the book. You just about stick with it all because it is Paul Newman, but this material certainly does him no favours.
There's a germ of a good idea here if only the film makers would allow their film to address the issues and the flaws inherent in the system that makes deprived areas so problematic. Occasionally you get the feeling that that kernal of honest intention was there all along in the script - Ed Asner's by-the-book feather-ruffling newly installed station Captain for example seems promising - but it was smothered at birth by the sensationalist and melodramatic silly nonsense ultimately on display.
1981, the year of the film's release, was also the year that the brilliant Hill Street Blues made its debut on TV, thus immediately showing this utter guff how it really should have been done. It's not that the film doesn't have a certain polish to it - it may be full of cliches and it may go nowhere but it isn't that it's poorly made - it's just that it's downright offensive.
When the film was released there were several demonstrations against it by the ethnic groups who resided in The Bronx. Having watched this film now, I can damn well so why. It trivialises important issues, sends out totally the wrong message and only introduces black or Puerto Rican characters to commit crimes or take drugs.