ASPHALT CITY Review: Raw Intensity, Brutal Stress, Overwhelmed Paramedics

Sean Penn and Tye Sheridan star in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's intense thriller.

Contributor; Mexico City, Mexico (@EricOrtizG)
ASPHALT CITY Review: Raw Intensity, Brutal Stress, Overwhelmed Paramedics

With raw intensity, director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire portrays the arduous task paramedics face, especially when dealing with emergencies in a huge place like New York City.

Asphalt City – whose original title, Black Flies, refers to the smell of death that attracts flies – follows a rookie (Tye Sheridan), assigned by the boss (Mike Tyson) as a partner to the classic experienced veteran, who often follows his own rules: Gene (Sean Penn).

The film finds its power reflecting the brutal level of stress inherent in this profession. The young paramedic played by Sheridan deals with life-and-death situations, extremely hostile people and merciless criminals; even with his own colleagues, who look down on him or play tasteless morbid pranks on him. At one point, Sheridan's release in a nightclub is more than understandable.

Asphalt City also shows the camaraderie between Sheridan and Penn (both giving excellent performances) -- which sometimes turns “wrong” with pedophilia jokes or when Gene declares his hatred for bikers -- and part of their personal lives. The young man is still aspiring to obtain a medical degree, while his relationship with a single mother becomes more serious. The veteran adores his little daughter, but is further alienated from her because of his ex-wife’s (Katherine Waterston) new relationship.

Everything is used to highlight that the work of these paramedics, always at the limit and not at all appropriate if you want to develop a healthy relationship, puts them in a dangerous situation: at any moment they could be overwhelmed, "buried" by the sordidness with which they live. The film explores that dark side, which, without a doubt, could be thought of as equivalent to what happens with the police: there are paramedics whose behavior becomes immoral. 

Michael Pitt appears with an antagonistic attitude every time Penn is suspended. And the film takes our veteran co-star to the bleakest place possible.

Although not everything is pessimistic in Asphalt City, especially with the character of Sheridan – in addition to the fact that there are also emergency cases with a motivating outcome for the paramedics, whose intention is to help – Sauvaire makes his mission explicit: to raise awareness about those paramedics who are completely overwhelmed. That's something the filmmaker achieves.

Review originally published in May 2023 during the Cannes Film Festival under the film's original title, Black Flies. The film opens at select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, March 29, via Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions.

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Jean-Stéphane SauvaireSean PennTye Sheridan

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