Asphalt City


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Perhaps you remember a scene in “Repo Man,” a cult film, where Emilio Estevez while repossessing a stolen vehicle at high speed says, “This is intense,” and Harry Dean Stanton laconically responds with, “Repo man’s always intense.” It could be that being a paramedic in a big city is the same. To begin with, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire directed Asphalt City from Ryan King and Ben Mac Brown’s screenplay based on Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel Black Flies which starts off with a very stressful outer-boroughs NYC emergency medical intervention scene as rookie Ollie (Tye Sheridan, who still looks beleaguered despite of his wide-eyedness) tries to assist a gunshot victim after an apartment complex shootout. The screenwriters are not too much concerned about creating original lines; instead we hear “I’m trying to do my f**king job here” spoken by someone on the other end of the busy multi-channel soundtrack line and even someone else saying “fu**ing rookie” plus what he said last time—“I’m getting too old for this s**t.”

Sauvaire likes to document extreme life situations and his style of sound and vision overload did pretty well for him in 2018’s boxing-in-a-Thai-prison punchfest A Prayer Before Dawn. That movie had an unusual narrative that kept it unusually buoyant throughout. This story seems more or less familiar.

You know what I am talking about. You become a big-city paramedic so as to save lives. But these people can drive you mad! They don’t care for themselves; they usually live in filth; they cannot communicate – nor do they appreciate your saving their life! No wonder this sometimes gets hard going. And staying with two old people down in Chinatown doesn’t help Ollie’s existential outlook either as he tries to save money to go through medical school. He could argue that he doesn’t even talk to the single mother he is having sex with, if they are really communicating at all.

A racist white city-dwelling man could read into the first section of this film and get a very specific message from it though this may not have been intended. That being said, for any ethnic group that scares him every time he sees them, he’s right about his fears. Asphalt City hyped up Black kids with guns! Chunky inked out shirtless Hispanics playing around with pit bulls – the mean kind, not the ones you adopt which they always say are safe! In the back of an ambulance, heroin-addicted possibly-Filipino women curse obscenities for minutes on end! It’s really a jungle out there! Holy moly!

While Sheridan’s Ollie can barely keep his head above water, his good shift partner, an older and rugged Rutovsky or Rut for short, appears to have things “relatively” figured out at the beginning. Asphalt City Played with admirable restraint by Sean Penn, Rut is no longer a naïve cop after many years in the job. He knows what it takes to survive the police world and he is dramatically pragmatic as the film progresses, first through a few gray areas before descending into very dark moral waters. (Rut has an estranged partner played by Katherine Waterson whose gesture of disapproval shows her as a chip off the old block i.e. her father Sam.) Lafontaine is played by Michael Pitt who is bulked up with puffy face and looks like he wants to be in ‘Boondock Saints’ franchise next playing a role of bad shift partner; this is one of those instances where it sometimes seems that actors might have gone rogue. He states: “I do not know if I believe in Heaven but I believe in Hell,” hoo boy and just in case you didn’t catch that one: “I ain’t Jesus –that’s what I will tell you.” As far as Ollie’s gruff station chief Mike Tyson goes though, one can hardly think of using phrases such as stunt casting before they disappear.

Paradoxically perhaps, it may be when the film is most quiet that it becomes most convincing. A depressing scene where Ollie and Rut visit a nursing home to find an ignored patient with liquid-filled lungs who knows he will go right back to this hellhole once he gets better at hospital because they are merely going through motions sums up everything about such situations perfectly well which comes across quite strongly. Another memorable scene involves Penn and Sheridan’s characters walking through an empty Coney Island winter night exchanging dryly morbid banter. However, there are some aspects of the black flies on the walls in a dead man’s apartment (the title of the book), or an absolutely blood drenched child birthing tableau that make “Immaculate” look tasteful. Sometimes, maximum intensity does not produce optimal results.

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