‘Asphalt City’ Movie Review: Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan in Paramedic Drama

Certain movies make a splashy entrance into prestigious film festivals, and while making a grand entrance, those films take time to appear in cinemas. In some cases, that can be a good thing. Recent examples include Martin Scorsese’s Killers of The Flower Moonwhich earned ten Academy Award nominations. Whereas other films from the festival circuit struggle to find a proper audience. This can include a theatrical release for those titles or simply sending them straight to video-on-demand. Asphalt City is a later example of a festival film being slipped into theaters.

The story of the movie Asphalt City

The story follows a hopeful medical school student, Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan). As a paramedic, he is assigned to the NYC night shift with the seasoned Gene Rutkovsky (Sean Penn). Cross gets first-hand experience in the paramedic life of New York City, revealing the trials and tribulations of this role. In the field, Cross begins to uncover the chaos, pride, of the job and the murky areas in between. What follows is an unflinching look into a world with the dark truths that exist in this line of work. In other words, audiences need to proceed cautiously because Asphalt City is by no means an enjoyable watch.

Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (Johnny Mad DogA Prayer Before Dawn) establishes a profoundly dark mood. It creates honesty in a way that shows Sauvaire is taking his subject matter quite seriously. Instead, he wants to unsettle viewers by consistently ratcheting up the tension. At 126 minutes, that tension unfortunately falters throughout the story. This includes mistaking tense sequences for more atmospheric ones. Beautiful and simultaneously frightening images should not be mistaken for engaging cinema. These moments of artistic imagery and reaction shots grind the pacing to a halt. 

The character arch of Cross is the equivalent of a ride into terror. What he witnesses is admittedly grueling. While those moments are effectively chilling, the lingering effects on Cross limit the emotional impact. It’s pretty easy to see how these tense 911 calls shake him to his core. Tye Sheridan amply conveys this and is massively chilling for the first third. The problem is that it is one of the film’s only real bits of characterization. Therefore, it limits the audience’s emotional attachment to his journey. This could also be a fault of the screenplay by Ben Mac BrownShannon Burke, and Ryan King.

Asphalt City is startlingly effective as a look into the world of a paramedic. It’s a thorough examination of the kind of calls these true heroes deal with regularly. The problem is that the film simply relishes its time building that mood of these sequences. This includes one call involving actress Kali Reis (True Detective) that puts the plot’s real narrative meat in motion. In turn, the “drama” that comes from it feels entirely cliched and uninteresting. What helps Asphalt City from being a total misfire involves the quieter moments and Sean Penn’s performance.

Penn and Sheridan’s sense of humanity is evident when they simply ride around NYC together. Their banter feels real, showing the foundations of a worthwhile friendship. As they rush between death-defying calls, Penn’s grounded yet slightly jaded portrayal packs a punch. His quiet and reserved demeanor shows a layer of cynicism and shows that Rutkovsky (Penn) knows things that Cross will never understand about this job. At the same time, Penn delivers a disgruntled warmth showcased in the quieter moments. 

The film’s biggest highlight involves both Cross and Rutkovsky getting to know one another. As both men let their guards down, a needed sense of an uplifting tone and upbeat mood is struck. This includes humanity and comedy in their situation together and living outside the job. These sequences are a breath of fresh air against the dower premise. If there were more of these sequences, some may forgive the darkness lying ahead. Unfortunately, these moments leave audiences pining for more genuine kindness. 

Asphalt City is A Film That Leaves You Exhausted

Your appreciation of the material will depend on your interpretation of the latter half. What we can say, without spoilers, is that characters make tough calls. The results of those calls deliver a film that will leave you sorely depressed once the credits roll. It’s easy to see why these choices were made regarding the characters ‘ journeys. While understandable, they are delivered to audiences at a rather relentless speed. With that speed, viewers might feel emotionally exhausted once the credits roll. It’s thanks to Sean Penn’s world-weariness that those moments remain effective and sometimes thought-provoking. With Cross being an audience conduit, he does not have the ability to convey that similar emotional weight.

Asphalt City is an admittedly mixed bag of a film. It offers an unflinching look into the world of paramedics, warts and all. Some will admire the sheer ferociousness of that choice, creating a brutal experience in the process. Others may find it too overbearing to have the depth the film strives for. That combination delivers a story without the emotional impact it hopes for. The results make a film that ends up being an unfortunate disappointment. An engaging performance from Sean Penn and funny banter with Tye Sheridan cannot keep the movie afloat. That makes Asphalt City a film that has great pieces and interesting ideas. The problem is that those pieces create an overall lackluster whole. 

Asphalt City is in theaters on March 29, 2024.

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