Murphy has been a cop for 18 years and he tells his young partner Corelli "every minute of it is on my face." Both are officers at Fort Apache, the nickname for the 41st Precinct in New York City's South Bronx, a 40-block area of urban desolation, unemployment, and widespread crime. In the first scene of the film, a drug-crazed prostitute shoots two rookie cops to death while they are taking a coffee break in their squad car. No wonder older people and mothers with children hang around Fort Apache they see it as a sanctuary in the middle of a war zone.
Connolly, a do-it-by-the-book police chief, takes over the "fort" after the retirement of his predecessor, who tells him: "There's enough dirt in this precinct to bury ever smart assed cop in the city." Determined to find out the murderer of the two rookies, Connolly orders his men to turn the neighborhood upside-down. The extensive round-up of citizens for questioning causes racial protests and a demonstration, which has to be broken up with tear gas, in front of Fort Apache.
Amidst Murphy's regular round of duties, requiring him to disarm a psycho wielding a knife, square off with a pimp beating up a hooker, convince a transvestite not to commit suicide by leaping off a building, and deliver a 14-year-old's baby; he and his partner see Morgan, a fellow cop, kill an innocent Puerto Rican youth during a street riot. Murphy's conscience won't let him disregard what he's witnessed, despite Corelli's rationalization that they can't do anything for the kid anyway and why risk alienating the rest of the force by ratting on policemen.
Isabella, the young Puerto Rican nurse Murphy is dating, tells him: "You cops see everything but you don't know anything." Her heroin habit an escape from the pain, hopelessness and destruction she sees all around her causes her death and in part spurs Murphy to bring charges against Morgan.
Fort Apache, The Bronx is based on the real-life experiences of two policemen who served in the 41st Precinct. Heywood Gould's screenplay portrays the men in blue as neither Galahads nor roughnecks but as ordinary human beings who suffer and endure in a pressure-cooker job. Director Daniel Petrie (who is also responsible for the moving film Resurrection) ably accents the moral dimensions of the story. He draws out excellent performances from Paul Newman as Murphy, Ken Wahl as Corelli, Edward Asner as Connolly, and newcomer Rachel Ticotin as Isabella. Stories about policemen are a dime a dozen, thanks to the surfeit of TV cop shows over the past decade. Fort Apache, the Bronx, along with a few of Joseph Wambaugh's films, raises the genre to its highest plateau.