‘Asphalt City’ Review: Arbiters of Life and Death


Two paramedics — Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan), a wide-eyed rookie, and Gene Rutkovsky (Sean Penn), a gruff veteran of the trade — traverse the mean streets of East New York, Brooklyn, by ambulance in the solemn drama “Asphalt City.” Flooded with neon and sirens, the movie opens during Cross’s first nights on the corps, tracking his and his new partner’s efforts to provide care for an array of challenging patients.

Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire — with evident inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead” — this jittery drama wants viewers to appreciate the unique burdens facing emergency medical workers. Its approach to achieving this goal, however, involves a profusion of overly literal allusions to the paramedics as arbiters of life and death. “We are gods,” a colleague insists to Cross in one of several midnight symposiums on ethics and existentialism. As if those weren’t enough, our hero in training also sports a bomber jacket conspicuously embroidered with angel wings.

For reasons beyond my understanding, Cross, an aspiring doctor, looks up to Rutkovsky, a flinty old timer with a propensity to aggress when he feels sad or mad or basically anything. Their dynamic is familiar at best and dull at worst, particularly for those who long ago tired of the tragedies of toxic machismo. A couple of women do inhabit “Asphalt City”: the enthralling Katherine Waterston as Rutkovsky’s nettled ex wife, and Cross’s nameless love interest, whose naked body seems to receive more screen time than her face.

Asphalt City
Rated R for bloody emergencies and graphic nudity. Running time: 2 hours. In theaters.

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