Lights! Camera! Lunacy! EMS in the Movies

These six EMS-related movies mostly missed the mark


   Big-screen EMS fiction is just that: fiction. A totally realistic movie about EMS probably wouldn't get past the initial sales pitch, because most of what we do is about as exciting as changing batteries. (I know because I've spent some shifts looking for more batteries to change.)

   If I'd ever found an employer, a medical director and a legislature that allowed me to try half of what these movie medics do, I would have dropped anchor in that town and spent my workdays yelling things like, "I don't care what the book says; we're on the streets now--my streets--and you darn well better hand me that rib spreader before I hit you with this Halligan tool." (Memo to prospective EMS filmmakers: You can use that line if you promise to let me direct the airborne lung-transplant scene.)

   Despite a credibility gap wider than Montana, EMS movies can be entertaining when accompanied by a willing suspension of disbelief. At least that's what I tell myself every time I see some clueless actor rubbing defibrillator paddles together. I decided to pursue the notion of prehospital care as cinéma vérité by watching six rescue-oriented films, then offering commentary from an EMS perspective. Just a few ground rules about the format before we begin:

  • Ratings are 0-4 stars of life, according to my admittedly biased concept of entertainment: Zero stars would be a home video of me lip-synching "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," and four stars would be a Godfather prequel where Michael Corleone becomes a "made paramedic."
  • One of the reasons EMS people watch EMS movies is to ridicule inaccuracies. We consider it our duty to educate non-EMS viewers, many of whom will never again accept invitations to our homes. Voodoo EMS previews scenes you might want to interrupt with snide remarks.
  • Segments headed Say Again? show dialogue you probably wouldn't hear anywhere except on a movie set. I think you'll find these lines funny, although some aren't supposed to be.
  • The beer is cold, the popcorn's hot, the kids are in the tool shed--it's showtime!

Broken Vessels (1998): Rated 1 Star of Life

Plot Summary

   Tom, who must be the only Penn graduate in history to settle for EMT certification instead of a degree, is hired by "L.A. City Rescue" as a partner for Jimmy, a veteran paramedic who passed burnout long ago and is headed for meltdown. We get the impression Jimmy knows something about medicine when he resuscitates a traumatic arrest and clears another patient's obstructed airway--on the same call. (Memo to the producers: I try to break the monotony of traumatic arrests and obstructed airways by delivering premature twins on even-numbered days.)

   Mostly, though, Jimmy does drugs. Then he steals from patients to do even more drugs. When Tom follows his lead, the result is a soulless, mutually destructive partnership that makes Leopold and Loeb look like the Sunshine Boys. Whenever you think it can't get worse, Tom and Jimmy commit another felony, then justify the outcome by babbling us-against-the-world rhetoric. All of this made me want to send Christmas cards to even my most incorrigible partners.

   Will Tom plunge ever deeper into Jimmy's nether world, or will he seek salvation after realizing he's the poster child for poor impulse control? Yes.

Voodoo EMS

  • When the guys respond to their first call as partners, Jimmy distracts a sword-wielding maniac just before a police officer tackles the wacko through an open window. I'm sure they practice that at the academy. Then Jimmy subdues the EDP with a trans-trousers shot of an unnamed tranquilizer. Didn't I see that on Animal Planet? Without the trousers, I mean.
  • When a docile patient takes offense at Jimmy's offer of a "beatdown," Jimmy wields a defibrillator as a stun gun (using classic temporal-temporal paddle placement). I think I had a partner who tried that once. On himself.

Say Again?

This content continues onto the next page...