Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Sean Penn, Katherine Waterson, Michael Pitt
Runtime: 2 hr 5 mins
Rating: R21 (Sexual Scenes and Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Official Website: 

Opening Day: 9 May 2024

Synopsis: Upstart paramedic Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan) courses through adrenaline-fueled nights in an ambulance for the New York City Fire Department in Brownsville, Brooklyn while spending days studying for med-school exams in a Chinatown hovel. Working alongside seasoned first responder Gene Rutkovsky (Sean Penn), Cross discovers firsthand the chaos and awe of a job that careens from harrowing to heartfelt, and occasionally stretches into ethical ambiguity. French filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (A Prayer Before Dawn) concocts a visceral and immersive thriller out of the complex and grueling lives of emergency medical technicians and the everyday people they live to save.

Movie Review:

Retitled after its premiere in competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, ‘Asphalt City’ (or ‘Black Flies’ as it was previously known) follows rookie New York City paramedic Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan) as he traverses the mean streets of Brooklyn while studying to get into medical school. As you can imagine, it ain’t pretty, and over the course of an indeterminate number of days and weeks, Ollie will come across gunshot victims, drug dealers, drug addicts, domestic abusers and even a HIV-positive woman who used heroin at the precise moment she was delivering her newborn.

At least at the start, that Ollie manages to hold himself together after losing a gunshot patient in the back of an ambulance on his first day on the job is thanks to gruff veteran Gene Rutkovsky (Sean Penn), who takes Ollie under his wing as his partner and subsequently shows him just how to get through each shift without losing his sanity. As jaded as he may be, Rutkovsky slowly but surely becomes Ollie’s exemplar, and each successive episode reinforces the bond that develops between these two unlikely emergency medical workers.

Like the 2008 novel of the same name it is based on, ‘Asphalt City’ paints an unvarnished look at the life of an EMT. Employing an episodic structure, it bounces our two protagonists from one trauma to the next, conveying vicariously the physical, mental and emotional toll it takes on any normal individual. Though repetitive, it is never boring, vacillating between gang members bleeding out, addicts passed out on laundromat floors, abused wives being screamed at by their husbands and purple babies born to bleeding moms; in fact, the most normal patient is probably an Arab man suffering from an asthma attack inside a slaughterhouse.

Comparisons with Martin Scorsese’s ‘Bringing Out the Dead’ are inevitable, but director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire holds his own bringing his stylized vision of New York as a crime-ridden hellscape. We will admit that those looking for nuance will find little, and it is eminently understandable why some would call it overwrought sensationalism, but there is no denying how it does get under your skin, even though you may not like how it makes you feel. It may not be representative of the lived experience of every single New York City EMT, but it is of the officers assigned to the poorest and most crime-ridden section of the city.

Over the course of two engaging hours, it is also effective a character drama of both Ollie and Rutkovsky, both well-played by Penn and Sheridan. Penn is an old pro at a role like this, but it is still quiet spectacular work how he conveys with a lean and mean manner and a thousand-yard stare the weariness that his character’s paramedic work has on him. On the other hand, Sheridan gives a quiet, unfussy performance, but it is fascinating to see how he gradually loses it, especially when a series of unfortunate events lead Ollie to be paired with bad shift partner Lafontaine (Michael Pitt).

Though it could do with a little more subtlety, this is nonetheless an absorbing study of the lives of paramedics, whose business of saving the lives of others could end up breaking their very own. It is rather unrelentingly sombre from start to finish, and for that reason, may lead some to question its very realism. Yet like we said, the fact that it unnerves and unsettles is precisely why it is so successful, even though you may not like how it feels. For fans of Penn, it is also a joy to watch the veteran’s effortless understatement, and a reminder of why he remains one of the greatest actors of our generation. .

Movie Rating:



(Grim and sombre, this unrelenting study of two paramedics fighting to hold themselves together as they save lives is an absorbing study of the physical, mental and emotional toll of such roles)

Review by Gabriel Chong


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