Asphalt City Review

Tye Sheridan and Sean Penn star in a brutal look at the lives of EMTs in New York City.

Plot: Asphalt City follows Ollie Cross, a young paramedic assigned to the NYC night shift with an uncompromising and seasoned partner Gene Rutkovsky. The dark nights reveal a city in crisis; Rutkovsky guides Cross, as each 911 call is often dangerous and uncertain, putting their lives on the line every day to help others. Cross soon discovers firsthand the chaos and awe of a job that careens from harrowing to heartfelt, testing his relationship with Rutkovsky and the ethical ambiguity that can be the difference between life and death.

Review: Stories about first responders, specifically EMTs, are often material depicted on small-screen procedurals and dramas like 9-1-1 and Chicago Med. Doctors tend to get all the glory on the big screen, except for Martin Scorsese’s haunting 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. Where that film went down a horror-tinged rabbit hole reminiscent of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, it managed to evoke the brutality that paramedics face night after night in the sprawl of New York City. Following in the footsteps of Nicolas Cage’s film, Asphalt City is a hard-to-watch look at paramedics’ intense job and its consequences on their psyches. Featuring multiple sequences that some viewers will have difficulty watching, Asphalt City is a film you cannot walk away from without it lingering in your memory.

Asphalt City follows Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan), a medical student who gets assigned a rotation working as a paramedic during the night shift in a rough part of New York City. Living in a rundown tenement in Chinatown to save money for medical school, Cross is immediately shocked by the brutality of the emergencies he and his partner, Gene Rutkovsky (Sean Penn), encounter night after night. From drug addicts to homeless people, gangsters, and more, Ollie must endure the fact that not everyone is happy when the first responders arrive, nor can they always save the patient. The grind of what Ollie and Gene encounter night after night forces the young man to find outlets for his rage, gradually reaching a breaking point. Over the two-hour running time, Asphalt City pulls no punches and filters almost nothing as we endure what Ollie endures.

Originally released under the title Black Flies, Asphalt City competed for the Palm d’Or at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Vying for that esteemed prize usually indicates something special in a film that sets it apart from everything else out there. Asphalt City does not reinvent the genre by showing us anything we have not seen in Bringing Out the Dead or Taxi Driver. There is clearly an influence from Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese in the look and feel of Asphalt City, almost to the point of homage. This film desperately wants to send a message about EMTs’ grueling and nihilistic lives and how they cope with one of the most demanding and challenging jobs out there. Still, it does so by repeating the formulaic storytelling we have seen before. Tye Sheridan is a solid actor, but he spends so much of this film looking broken and angry, while Sean Penn barely raises the temperature of his performance above a grumble.

Asphalt City review

So much of Asphalt City centers on Sheridan and Penn that every other actor barely registers. Most of the cast features people who look like the filmmakers picked them up right off the street, and almost every scene has a new face as the EMTs roll from one call to the next. This makes the actual recognizable talent in the film feel fleeting as well. The most substantial supporting role is Michael Pitt as a rival EMT with whom Ollie does not get along. Mike Tyson portrays Chief Burroughs in a total of three scenes in which he barely has any dialogue. Gbenga Akinnagbe and Katherine Waterston show up for a couple of scenes that seem unnecessarily added. True Detective: Night Country star Kali Reis shows up in a pivotal but minor role, while Raquel Nave is seen throughout in fully nude sex scenes with Tye Sheridan that are meant to be provocative but instead feel tacked on. In many cases, the non-famous supporting cast helped make this feel more authentic, while the famous actors pulled me out of the story.

Directed by Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, Asphalt City has a European aesthetic despite the New York City setting. With manic editing by Saar Klein and Katherine McQuerrey, Sauvaire, and cinematographer David Ungaro try to blend a documentary-like realism to the medical sequences with an ethereal and dream-like tone. The issue is that so much of the visual approach feels like it has been done countless times before, and it cannot help but feel a bit derivative. The screenplay from Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown keeps the realistic medical elements from Shannon Burke’s novel on which this is based. Still, it cannot help but feel watered down when cliche moments like Ollie screaming but with no sound or the requisite mentor taking the fall sequence. That does not discount the handful of disturbing scenes in this film, which will be a challenge for any viewers sensitive to realistic depictions of dead bodies. It also does not help that the title does not make much sense, whereas the original name, Black Flies, is a recurring motif throughout the movie.

Asphalt City is a tough watch. The message at the center of the film lacks subtlety as it drives home that being a paramedic in New York City is a thankless job fraught with challenges. This is not a film that pulls any punches and would likely dissuade more people from pursuing a career in medicine than it would inspire. Nevertheless, while this movie is tough to watch from a visceral standpoint, it is also not easy to get through because of how familiar it feels. Asphalt City does not tread any ground we have not seen on screen before; instead, it shows us more disturbing twists. While Tye Sheridan and Sean Penn are good, they cannot overcome the weakness of a film that is so weighed down by its own horrors.


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