Asphalt City

When Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan) moves from Colorado to Brooklyn to be a paramedic, he’s paired with veteran Gene Rutkovsky (Sean Penn) on the night shift.  Ollie’s goal is to save lives, but he is almost undone by the harsh realities of “Asphalt City.”

Laura's Review: C

Not content with portraying what must be the incredibly stressful and dangerous lives of paramedics in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of East New York and Brownsville, director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire ("A Prayer Before Dawn") exaggerates every cultural stereotype of their non-white patients to off-putting effect, casting these EMTs as racist judge and juries.  Add some lurid psychological repercussions to Ollie’s mother’s suicide when he was a boy and Sauvaire’s lost his plot, the film’s original title, “Black Flies,” made audibly literal when it makes no sense.  It’s a shame, as there is a good movie in here somewhere and Sean Penn’s performance is a welcome return.

We’re thrown into the action along with Ollie, an evening cacophony of sirens, shouting and barking intensified by the strobing colored lights of emergency response vehicles and throngs of onlookers.  The first man he’s shepherded towards is shot in the foot, a non-life threatening injury, before he’s redirected to a man with multiple gunshot wounds and sociopathic paramedic Lafontaine (Michael Pitt), who refuses to work with a rookie.  In steps Rutkovsky, who gruffly guides Cross through procedures which ultimately prove useless.

Cross, who actually wears a jacket embossed with angel’s wings on its back, lives in a room in a Chinatown walk-up, his quarters separated from two others by a drawn curtain, ostensibly to allow him time to study for his MCAT.  The empathetic young man and the grizzled veteran (and Penn’s face looks like someone walked a thousand miles on it) are slow to warm up to each other, something accomplished by Gene’s propensity to take whichever Chinese takeout ordered for lunch is more to his liking.  Gene opens up about his personal life, introducing Ollie to his latest ex, Nancy (Katherine Waterston), and his adored only child, Sylvie (Onie Maceo Watlington), while Ollie keeps his darker relationship with single mother Clara (Rachel Nave) to himself.

The two will tangle with gangs and an unfortunate dog, a crazy woman spouting abuse, a drunken woman in a laundromat (played for laughs), an asthmatic Arab in a Halal slaughter house and a badly beaten Eastern European woman whose husband tangles with Rutkovsky just as the NYPD arrive.  But it will be their response to a pregnant  HIV+ woman, Nia (‘True Detective’s’ Kali Reis), who took heroin for labor pains, that causes Ollie to be paired once more with Lafontaine, who sends him in alone to deal with a festering bathtub suicide (and black flies) in a scene that makes “The Shining’s” Room 237 feel far less frightening.

Everything about “Asphalt City” is over the top, Sauvaire straining for a type of artsy grit with his multi-layered sound design and music ranging from Wagner to heavy metal. While both costars have producer credits, this feels like the type of film Sheridan chose to show off range and some kind of street cred, but it is Penn who makes this one worth watching, a guy who we can tell started with something like Ollie’s idealism, but who’s been around the block too many times to count, his eyes the window to a worn out soul.

Robin's Review: B-

Roadside Attractions and Vertical release "Asphalt City" (formerly "Black Flies") in theaters on 3/29/24.