Review: ‘Asphalt City,’ starring Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Raquel Nave, Kali Reis, Michael Carmen Pitt, Katherine Waterston and Mike Tyson

May 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Tye Sheridan in “Asphalt City” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical)

“Asphalt City”

Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Asphalt City” (based on the novel “Black Flies”) features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Asian, Latin and multiracial) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young rookie paramedic, who wants to eventually become a medical doctor, experiences harsh realities when he is paired with a middle-aged, jaded paramedic, as they work in a rough part of New York City. 

Culture Audience: “Asphalt City” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and can tolerate a movie that’s too long for its weak plot and is filled with formulaic stereotypes and scummy characters.

Sean Penn in “Asphalt City” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical)

The long-winded “Asphalt City” clumsily mixes melodrama with long stretches of dullness. This turgid movie about two contrasting paramedic co-workers has a mismatched cast and an off-kilter story plagued with predictable clichés. This last third of “Asphalt City” (which has a total running time of 125 minutes) is very manipulative when it turns into a hollow soap opera that cannot be improved.

Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, “Asphalt City” (formerly titled “Black Flies”) is based on Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel “Black Flies.” Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown co-wrote the “Asphalt City” adapted screenplay. “Asphalt City” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, an event for movies that are either artsy or commercially crowd-pleasing. “Asphalt City” is neither.

“Asphalt City” takes place in New York City, where the movie was filmed on location. The movie has two main characters, but the story is told from the perspective of the younger character. Ollie Cross (played by Tye Sheridan) is in his mid-to-late 20s and has just started a new job as an ambulance paramedic for the Fire Department of New York. Ollie has been assigned to work with Gene Rutkovsky (played by Sean Penn), who is in his early 60s and is trying not think about getting close to the age when many people retire.

Ollie is inexperienced and eager to please. Gene is jaded and gruff. There have been so many movies and TV shows with this character dynamic of a young rookie paired with a cynical veteran. If you’ve seen enough of these types of duos on screen, then you can easily predict how this movie is going to go. In these types of stories, the younger person loses some type of innocence when spending time being taught by the older, more experienced person. The older colleague is usually “corrupt” or morally ambiguous in one way or another.

Ollie and Gene (who does most of the ambulance driving when they work together) work in the crime-ridden, low-income East New York neighborhood in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. Ollie is a bachelor who lives with two Chinese-speaking roommates in Manhattan. Not much else is revealed about Ollie except that he’s originally from Colorado, and he’s studying for entrance exams for an unnamed medical school because he eventually wants to become a medical doctor.

Gene is divorced and lives alone in Brooklyn. Gene admits that his marriages have been ruined mainly because he’s a workaholic and a philanderer. Gene doesn’t say how many times he’s been married, but there’s a scene where he visits his “most recent ex-wife” Nancy (played by Katherine Waterston), who has custody of their daughter Silvie (played by Onie Maceo Watlington), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. Nancy doesn’t let Gene see Silvie until Gene has made the child support payments that he owes. In this scene, Gene brings Ollie along for this visit so that Gene can introduce Ollie to Sylvie, as if to prove that Gene is capable of being an attentive father.

Much of the screen time in “Asphalt City” consists of Ollie and Gene responding to medical emergencies. There are some scenes where people legitimately have to be taken to a hospital emergency room. Some of the violence in the movie is there for shock value, such as a scene where a boy at an apartment complex was hurt by a violent pit bull, and Ollie sees an angry mob of men take the dog outside while one of the men shoots and kills the dog.

Too many other paramedic scenes become annoying spectacles of Ollie and Gene dealing with mentally ill people who don’t need an ambulance but are just shouting and causing disturbances. These time-wasting filler scenes don’t add anything significant to the story at all. In between responding to these calls, Ollie and Gene have mostly forgettable conversations while they are driving in the ambulance.

Ollie begins casually dating a single mother named Clara (played by Raquel Nave), who met Ollie at a nightclub. Clara has an infant son and doesn’t talk about who the father of her baby is. Don’t expect to learn anything meaningful about Ollie or Clara in this relationship. The movie’s only purpose for this relationship is to show Ollie and Clara having sexual trysts, and Clara experiencing how the stress of Ollie’s job starts to affect him.

The co-workers of Ollie and Gene are two-dimensional characters if they have any speaking lines of dialogue. The boss of Ollie and Gene is Chief Burroughs (played by Mike Tyson), a typically no-nonsense supervisor. Tyson doesn’t embarrass himself in this role (mainly because his screen time in the movie is less than five minutes), but his acting skills are obviously not as good as many other people in the cast. A paramedic named Verdis (played by Gbenga Akinnagbe) is very generic and has no real effect on the movie’s overall plot.

There’s an obnoxious paramedic co-worker named Lafontaine (played by Michael Carmen Pitt, also known as Michael Pitt), who sometimes goes in the same ambulance as Ollie and Gene. Lafontaine is a drug-abusing bully who has no qualms about stealing medication and illegal drugs when he’s working. Predictably, Lafontaine makes newcomer Ollie a target for some of the bullying. Lafontaine is yet another empty “Asphalt City” character with no backstory and with dialogue that goes nowhere.

The movie doesn’t take a turn from repetitive and pointless scenes until the last third of the story, when Ollie and Gene respond to a call about an unconscious, HIV+ woman named Nia (played by Kali Reis), who has given birth in her apartment, shortly after she overdosed on heroin. What happens to the baby becomes a source of conflict and leads to a very heavy-handed part of the movie.

Sheridan and Penn are not bad in their performances, but their acting isn’t outstanding either. They have both played these types of personalities (Sheridan as an earnest protégé, Penn as a shady mentor) in many other movies, so there’s nothing new to see here. The movie’s supporting characters don’t have enough depth to be impactful. Ultimately, “Asphalt City” shows a lot of urban grittiness and sleaze, but the emotional core of the movie has no real substance.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical released “Asphalt City” in select U.S. cinemas on March 29, 2024. The move was released on digital and VOD on April 16, 2024.

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