Producers: Warren Goz and Eric Gold    Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire   Screenplay: Ben Mac Brown and Ryan King    Cast: Tye Sheridan, Sean Penn, Michael Pitt, Katherine Waterston, Mike Tyson, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Raquel Nave, Kali Ries and Onie Maceo Watlington   Distributor: Vertical

Grade: C

Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s adaptation of Shannon Burke’s 2008 novel “Black Flies” (the film’s original title) is an example of blunt force filmmaking, an almost incessantly unforgiving pummeling, both for the NYFD paramedics working in a Brooklyn hellscape and for those of us watching them.  Reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s 1999 “Bringing Out the Dead,“ “Asphalt City” has grit to spare and bleakness to burn, but despite its intensity, it’s a very heavy slog through a lurid environment made to appear not just hideous (the production design is by Robert Pyzocha, the costumes by Stacy Jansen) but resistant to any hint of hope.

Sean Penn, looking worn and weary, with deep crevices in his face, is convincingly demoralized as veteran Gene “Rut” Rutkovsky, whose habit of chewing on toothpicks feels like one of those actorly traits too easily adopted to compensate for lack of depth in a written characterization.  He’s paired with Tye Sheridan, handsome but rather blank, as Ollie Cross, a newcomer from Colorado living in a dumpy apartment in Chinatown with two roommates to save money while studying to take the MCAT. Even the names carry crude symbolism: Rut is stuck in one of despair, a much-married and much-divorced shell of his former self, while Ollie has messianic ideals driven by past family trauma and evidenced by the painting of an angel on the wall of his flat and the florid wings on the colorful jacket he wears.

They meet under desperate circumstances, as Rut urges on the insecure Cross during a response to a mass shooting, a sequence played out in frantic confusion in David Ungaro’s frenzied cinematography and Katharine McQuerrey’s hyper-jerky editing. (Ungaro certainly loves to juice up the images with flashes of blinding red from the lights on cop cars and ambulances.) Chief Burroughs (Mike Tyson, playing the gruff, bellowing superior familiar from innumerable buddy-cop movies and TV shows but without a glimmer of humor) then partners the vet and the rookie.

Together they traverse the Brooklyn streets at night, called to attend to victims of shootings or medical emergencies (often overdoses), who—when able to speak at all—are usually hostile and vituperative, and are often surrounded by onlookers who are either terrified or angry at their supposed mistreatment.  Each incident is harrowing thing (at one point Cross barely survives when he tries to protect a dog from a gun-wielding man bent on killing the animal—and though their roles as patients and witnesses give many members of the supporting cast the opportunity to play big dramatic moments (an analogue here might be another exercise in profound nihilism, Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker”), there’s a repetitiveness to the cascade of misery and hopelessness that’s undeniably grueling, which is certainly Sauvaire’s intention, but also somewhat tedious, which presumably is not.

There’s little respite from the prevailing grimness in the lovemaking of Ollie with his girlfriend Clara (Raquel Nave)—more dutiful than ecstatic, even before she breaks it off because of his increasing penchant for violence.  There’s more tenderness in a scene in which Rut takes Cross to meet his latest ex-wife Nancy (Katherine Waterson) and only daughter Sylvie (Onie Maceo Watlington), to whom he’s obviously devoted.  But it turns melancholy when Nancy informs Rut that she’s seeing someone, and they intend to move upstate with the girl.

Rut tries to come to terms with that his relationship with Sylvie will be irretrievably altered, but the prospect of losing her takes a severe emotional toll, leading to a last act that turns brutally melodramatic.  Called in to try to save a woman named Nia (Kali Reis) who’s injected herself with heroin while giving birth, Cross sees to the mother while Rut carries the infant off to a bathroom to try to save its life, but while Cross is successful, his partner is apparently not.  Their conduct leads to an investigation in which Rut is suspended and the younger man is partnered with Lafontaine (Michael Pitt), a supremely cynical, constantly hyped-up colleague who tells him some unpleasant truths. That, in turn, leads to a confrontation between a disillusioned Cross and Rut, and to tragedy.

Lafontaine isn’t the sole representative of apathy and cynicism in “Asphalt City.”  In the opening sequence, for instance, Sauvaire, never one for subtlety, pans to a cop nonchalantly watching what’s happening in the ambulance as the paramedics work to save a man, and in a scene set in a slaughterhouse where Cross has to perform a tracheostomy on a man overcome by his asthma, the director is careful to show another worker blithely continuing to butcher an animal while the afflicted man’s wife is trembling in terror over her husband’s brush with death.  The final reel brings to the foreground the reality that while the EMT workers are engaged in trying to save lives, in some cases they might succumb to the inclination to play God and let death take its course–or worse.  Yet at the same the film takes pains, in a penultimate scene between Ollie and Nia, to impress on us that, despite the gruesome circumstances and the temptations they face, devotion to principle isn’t a lost virtue and their efforts can have remarkable outcomes. (Even here the symbolism is clumsy: after struggling with self-doubt, Cross walks off to see Nia stretching out his arms like wings.)

So the film has a double purpose, to depict both the horrendous fact of life and death in a scarred, dystopian city and the imperfect but genuine heroism of those who challenge the pervasive darkness.  Sadly, it’s more successful in achieving the former than the latter, ending as a depressing portrait that will likely confirm the belief of many that the contemporary urban landscape is not just blighted but probably unsalvageable.