Friday, April 19, 2024


THE STORY – A young paramedic gets a crash course in lifesaving techniques while working with a grizzled New York City veteran.

THE CAST – Sean Penn, Tye Sheridan, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Raquel Nave, Kali Reis, Michael Pitt, Katherine Waterston & Mike Tyson

THE TEAM – Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (Director), Ryan King & Ben Mac Brown (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes

Many people want to make a Paul Schrader film, but only some can make a Schrader film the right way. In fact, based on Schrader’s inconsistent filmography, even Schrader himself can’t always do Schrader right. “Asphalt City” exists in the same universe as the oppressive gray New York daytimes and neon- and blood-filled nighttimes of “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed,” and wallows in the same moral depravity and brutality of the world in which those film’s protagonists exist. But those two films go beyond demonstrating that the world is an ugly, meaningless, and brutal place to delve deeper into themes of grace and redemption or interrogate the kinds of violence society praises and lionizes. This is where “Asphalt City” falls short and is mostly just committed to the first part: demonstrating that the world is an ugly, meaningless, and brutal place.

“Asphalt City” is centered on two paramedics: Ollie (Tye Sheridan), a rookie, and Gene (Sean Penn), a grizzled, jaded veteran. They are the prototypical duo to lead a movie like this. They may not be cops, but they might as well be in how they embody the classic cliches of many a police drama’s rookie-veteran pairing. The film plunges the audience right into the middle of Ollie and Gene on the job as they treat a gruesome gunshot wound, and “Asphalt City” continues that way for two hours, on repeat, plunging the duo into ever increasingly gruesome vignette rescue situations.

To the film’s credit, even though it becomes repetitive fast, it is rarely dull. Every other scene is committed to revealing new ways to remind us that New York City and, by extension, life is full of violence and ugliness. Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (“A Prayer Before Dawn“) just keeps upping the ante with each encounter, and even if the structure feels redundant, there is enough tension, drama, and conflict here to keep you waiting to see what will happen next.

Cinematographer David Ungaro (“Samaritan“) leans hard into the gritty New York City aesthetic of darkness and neon lights. It’s a look we’ve seen a dozen times in this sort of movie, but that doesn’t make it any less striking. He carefully uses handheld techniques to immerse the viewer without making the camerawork nauseating. Sound Designer Ken Yasumoto (a Gaspar Noé regular) teams up with Nicolas Becker (“Sound of Metal’s Oscar-winning sound designer) to create a soundscape that pummels the viewer into submission, ensuring that they experience the stress and suffering right there alongside the characters. Dialogue weaves in and out between stylized distortion intertwined with shrieking, heavy metal music, and compositions by Wagner. It’s an aggressive choice that tends to be unpleasant to listen to but also ends up being one of the film’s most memorable aspects. 

Probably the most glaring area where the film truly falls short of being this generation’s “Bringing Out The Dead” is the writing. It’s full of cliches and the less said about some of Michael Pitt’s dialogue, the better — but Sheridan and Penn share some surprisingly effective, quiet conversations amid the violence and horrors of their job. The two of them deliver effective enough performances to carry the audiences through what is primarily an excruciating ordeal. Penn, in particular, has never seemed so world-weary, a benefit of his real-life older age and experience, which shines in his performance.

“Asphalt City” is not a poorly made film. It has more significant issues than that. It’s an overbearing, over-the-top, overly grim film that is well-crafted overall. But, the biggest issue is that it just does not have much to say, and even less than what has been said before and better by many other films. It is not a new or startling observation about how the world is a dark and unforgiving place. The best films that consider just how bleak and hopeless the world is, like “No Country For Old Men,” still have something more to say about humanity. Hollywood is famously obsessed with and often rightly criticized for its implausible happy endings. However, when a film commits itself so thoroughly to the opposite, content to do little more than revel in the despairing negatives of life with little semblance of a plot, it, in many ways, becomes just as trite and cliche as those Hollywood films reveling in implausible optimism.


THE GOOD - Competently crafted and engaging enough in its aesthetics, performances, and shock value.

THE BAD - Repetitive, and has little to say beyond reiterating that the world is an ugly, oppressive, and bleak place.



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Will Mavity
Will Mavity
Loves Awards Season, analyzing stats & conducting interviews. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Competently crafted and engaging enough in its aesthetics, performances, and shock value.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Repetitive, and has little to say beyond reiterating that the world is an ugly, oppressive, and bleak place.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>5/10<br><br>"ASPHALT CITY"