Can a movie be about racist people and situations without being racist itself? Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) is a challenging and, for its time, controversial film about the dissolving relationship between the police force and the citizens of the South Bronx during a period of intense conflict. The film itself feels uncomfortable enough exploring this material that a disclaimer appears at the beginning explaining that the film only portrays those citizens that require police presence and doesn't represent all the law-abiding folks. It's fine to say that but the film is more troubling than that: It is filled with thieves, and murderers, hookers, and pimp, dealers, and junkies. The cops also come off as intensely flawed, bigoted, and ineffectual.
Without the starpower of Paul Newman, Fort Apache, The Bronx might be unwatchably grim. As a veteran cop, Newman gives a masterful performance. He comes off as charming, funny, and decent, but there are more layers to him than that. When he witnesses a cop doing something way over the thin blue line he is tormented over whether or not to talk. The fact that he can't bring himself to do what he knows if right reveals a deeper conflict within himself. Newman peels back these layers slowly, like a man who has set up barriers between himself and the rough outside world and is hesitant to open up. He does open up, carefully, to Rachel Ticotin, a pretty nurse from the local hospital, whose one tormented secret adds to the air of sadness.
In the opening scene of the film Pam Grier, playing a drugged-out prostitute, kills two cops, setting the rocky relationship between the cops and the neighborhood on fire. This sudden, violent act definitely sets the tone early, but even more important is what happens next. Seeing that the cops are dead, several people run out and strip them of their badges, guns, and anything else worth stealing. Nothing is safe, the filmmakers are saying, and the rest of the film proves that.
Newman is backed by a great cast of tough guys, including Ed Asner as the new precinct chief, Danny Aiello as a violently angry cop, and Ken Wahl as Newman's slick partner. The entire cast, down to the smallest characters, does outstanding work, each person creating a complex character that has built his own private fortress.
Does Fort Apache, The Bronx exploit a troubled area or does it try to shine a light on its problems? It seems to do both. There are times when it all just seems to be too much, but that seems to be the point. The film never makes light of the problems, but showing this much urban blight without the socio-political awareness of Taxi Driver is questionable. Still, Fort Apache, The Bronx is an affecting and stirring film.
The widescreen non-anamorphic picture is good. Colors are muted and some scenes are very dark, but this sort of late-seventies drama demands that starkness. Like Blue Collar or Taxi Driver you get the feeling that you are peering down an alley and seeing something that you aren't supposed to see. This, mixed with the documentary style shooting, is very effective.
The soundtrack is mono and definitely does not sound like modern THX DTS Super-surround audio. Still, it works and is appropriate to the film. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
There are no extras other than some cast bios.
Fort Apache, The Bronx is a tough un-PC movie that might ruffle some feathers, but it doesn't shy away from showing the hurt that most people, regardless of race, carry around with them every day. The characters in the film are covering up for their pain and hopelessness and it's impossible not to sympathize with that.