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Retro Review 1981: Fort Apache, The Bronx

Posted by Thurston McQ on Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fort Apache, The Bronx (Original Release Date: 6 February 1981)

Insult and intrigue swap slaps to the viewer's face for much of Fort Apache, The Bronx.  It has strong performances and a stronger cast, along with enough real-feeling moments to make the ones that feel less real stand out.  I suppose it resonated enough with its original audience for it to be one of the few movies from 1981 you won’t have to go out of your way to find.  I found my copy in a four-dollar bargain bin at Walgreens (no hyphen, the Internet tells me).

Finding copies of these movies can be difficult.  Next week’s movie comes to us courtesy of a raid on a local seller’s LaserDisc section, and the movie for the week after that is a rare case of NetFlix’s “Watch Instantly” selection aligning with my interests.  I’ve had a hard enough time finding some of these that I’ve decided to make the availability ofeach movie a part of my review.  I figured this might be a deciding factor -- for those of you who don’t torrent every single thing you watch (and even, in some cases, for those of you who do) -- when it comes to deciding whether or not you choose to watch any of these on your own.

The blurb on the back of my bargain bin purchase tells me the movie is set ina “bombed-out wasteland.”  This misled me a little, even though it turned out to be a fairly accurate description.  The wording suggested to me something more along the lines of a post-apocalyptic or dystopian future.  Such a setting would have felt at home in an era that brought us the Mad Max movies, The Warriors (1979), the Orson Welles-hosted “documentary” The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981), Escape from New York (1981), Australia’s Turkey Shoot (1982), Blade Runner (1982), Parasite (1982), 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982), Nelvana’s Rock & Rule (1983), and the truly terrible Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1983).

It turned out the “bombed-out wasteland” was one of the present.  The cars are all of the period, and nothing about the movie indicates it takes place in the future.  (In this way, I guess, it reminded me of Predator 2 and Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead -- the latter more so than the former.) That said, the version of the present the movie offered didn’t quite strike me as believable.   The “Fort Apache” of the title isa police station in the worst part of The Bronx.  We’re told it’s the eye of a cyclone of drugs, sex, and violence so comically overblown the viewer isn’t surprised on those occasions when things are played for laughs.  Consider, for example, this scene:

 

 

That’s Oscar Winner Paul Newman, doing his best Dick Van Dyke-as-Bert and disarming a maniac in a manner sure to get a person stabbed ten times out of ten in real life.  It’s one of several comic moments in what is ultimately a serious performance.  Another example: a recurring gag finds Newman’s character, Murphy, trying to run down a purse-thieving “guy in a World War I cap.”  (I’m pretty sure at least one of these chases is sped up for comedic effect.)  During one of these chases, he gives up his quarry to bum a cigarette off another cop.

Having given up seems to be a character trait most of the cops share.  Things are accepted as generally awful.  The cops are humanized to a fault--not quite corrupt enough to be “bad guys,” but enough for the viewer not to respect them much as cops.  The good guys and bad guys stay out of one another’s way, more or less, and the cops are relegated to performing duties such as midwife (Murphy claims he’s delivered seventeen babies), suicide counselor (Murphy and his partner save a cross-dressing jumper who decides it’s time todie when he realizes Tom Snyder [yes, Tom Snyder gets name dropped; I’m not making that up] won’t be showing up to interview him), and conscientious drug dealer.

The good guys and bad guys stay out of one another’s way, that is, until two rookie cops are killed and the former chief of police retires and is replaced by Ed Asner’s Connolly.  Connolly comes in, is disgusted that no headway has been made solving the cop killings, and decides it’s time to clean up the Bronx.  He thinks he’s stirring the pot, but it turns out his spatula is shit and his pot is the fan.  Pretty soon, riots break out, and everybody is killing everybody.  This all leads up to a pretty shocking moment I don’t want to spoil, which in turn leads to the movie’s central conflict: Murphy has to decide whether or not to turn stool pigeon on one of his own.

I mention above the comic overblowing of the unholy trinity of sex, drugs, and violence, and that is what hurts the movie most.  Despite the humorous moments, this movie aims to be a drama, and the “bombed-outwasteland” we’re given feels stagey.  If it had been the post-apocalyptic movie I felt I was primed toexpect, it probably would have gotten away with it. I’m sure the contemporary landscape was as rough in real life as it looks on screen -- it was filmed on location -- but I couldn’t help feeling the city’s moral degradation was, as they say on the cereal box, “enlarged to show texture.” Residents of the Bronx apparently felt the same way, as they threatened litigation for the way their neighborhood was portrayed.  (Wikipedia says!)

The Final Word: Recommended?  No.  It’s watchable, though.  It comes pretty close to being recommended.  It doesn’t reconcile its dark humor with its drama a lot of the time.

Availability: On DVD.  Relatively ubiquitous.

Standout Scene:
Murphy’s bizarre disarmament might be the standout scene.  If it’s not that, then it’s probably the unintentional comedy in the scene where Murphy’s nurse girlfriend overdoses anddoes a zombie walk to the hospital in her pajamas.  There’s also the shock scene mentioned above, as well as the shock scene that opens the movie.  They’re both pretty strong, and are among the handful of solid moments in an otherwise mediocre movie.

Hey!  I know that guy!:  You know Paul Newman, Danny Aiello, and Ed Asner.  You know the hell out of them.  Rachel Ticotin plays cops a lot.  She’s Duvall’s partner in Falling Down, and she’s one of the cops on the plane in Con Air.  Guess what her character’s occupation is on Law & Order: Los Angeles.  You’ll also recognize Pam Grier, whose character (a prostitute) endsup being less important than movie than the movie leads us to believe she will be.  I kind of like how she’s dealt with.  It leads to a nifty “Rosebud!”-like moment at the end.  Ken Wahl is that guy everyone thought was going to be huge in the early eighties.  He got a few starring roles, then he got an Emmy for something he did in ’89.  After that?  The nineties must have eaten him alive.

Nostalgia Score: 5/10. It feels like the urban eighties, though I imagine the nostalgia score would be way higher for residents of The Bronx.  The hair, the clothes, and the car all take me back.  I didn’t have a strong connection to this one as a kid.  The only scene I remembered from it was the disarming scene.

Movie Score: 67/100

 

More Retro Reviews from 1981:

Inseminoid
Hanger 18
Scanners
The Incredible Shrinking Woman
Pacific Banana
 

Review Score: 67 / 100

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 42 weeks ago

The guy with the knife looks like a washed out Simon Pegg.

Mal Shot First
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Posted: 8 years 42 weeks ago

Why doesn't Paul Newman use his disarming technique on all the crooks in the Bronx?

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 42 weeks ago

It only works on people who look like Simon Pegg.

Quasar
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Posted: 8 years 42 weeks ago

Why is there a Movie Score and also a Review Score, and they're both the same number?

Is that like the difference between record of the year and album of the year?

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline