OTT car chases, constantly zipping camerawork, a villainous Jake Gyllenhaal — when Michael Bay's latest high-intensity action flick works, it's a wildly entertaining ride.
April 07, 2022
Michael Bay movies, Michael Bay movies, whatcha gonna do? Since the action-film director leapt from commercials and music videos to his big-screen debut Bad Boys more than a quarter-century back, there's only been two options. Slickly and unsubtly dripping with gleeful excess, his high-concept flicks embrace explosions, chases, heists, shootouts, jittery chaos and perpetual golden-hour hues with such OTT passion that you surrender or roll your eyes — having a blast or being bored by the bombast, basically. Too often, the latter strikes. That proved true of all five of his Transformers films, which are responsible for more cinematic tedium than any filmmaker should legally be allowed to crash onto screens. That his pictures are lensed and spliced as if lingering on one still for more than a split second is a heinous crime usually doesn't help, but it's what Bay is known for — and yet when Bayhem sparkles like it mostly does in Ambulance, it's its own kind of thrilling experience.
Following a high-stakes Los Angeles bank robbery that goes south swiftly, forcing two perpetrators to hijack an EMT vehicle — while a paramedic tries to save a shot cop's life as the van flees the LAPD and the FBI, too — Ambulance is characteristically ridiculous. Although based on the 2005 Danish film Ambulancen, it's Bay from go to whoa; screenwriter and feature newcomer Chris Fedak (TV's Chuck, Prodigal Son) even references past Bay movies in the dialogue. The first time, when The Rock is mentioned, it's done in a matter-of-fact way that as brazen as anything Bay has ever achieved when his flicks defy the laws of physics. In the second instance mere minutes later, it's perhaps the most hilarious thing he's put in his movies. It's worth remembering that Divinyls' 'I Touch Myself' was one of his music-clip jobs; Bay sure does love what only he can thrust onto screens, and he wants audiences to know it while adoring it as well.
Ambulance's key duo, brothers Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, The Matrix Resurrections) and Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal, The Guilty), are a former Marine and ostensible luxury-car dealer/actual career criminal with hugely different reasons for attempting to pilfer a $32-million payday. For the unemployed Will, it's about the cash needed to pay for his wife Amy's (Moses Ingram, The Tragedy of Macbeth) experimental surgery, which his veteran's health insurance won't cover — but his sibling just wants money. Will is reluctant but desperate, Danny couldn't be more eager, and both race through a mess of a day. Naturally, it gets more hectic when they're hurtling along as the hotshot Cam (Eiza González, Godzilla vs Kong) works on wounded rookie police officer Zach (Jackson White, The Space Between), arm-deep in his guts at one point, while Captain Monroe (Garrett Dillahunt, Army of the Dead), Agent Anson Clark (Keir O'Donnell, The Dry) and their forces are in hot pursuit.
Everything from Armageddon, Pearl Harbour and The Island to 2019's Netflix flick 6 Underground has trained viewers in what to expect from Ambulance — plus the movies name-checked in Ambulance's frames, obviously — but Bay is also the filmmaker who gave cinema 2013's exceptional Pain & Gain. His latest doesn't reach the same savvy heights, and it's both boosted by its hearty embrace of Bayhem and occasionally a victim to it, but it's rarely less than wildly entertaining. As the director's best efforts have long shown, he boasts a knack for heist-style films. Capers about break-ins of various sorts, even into Alcatraz, suit Bay because they're typically about chasing hefty scores no matter the cost. Ambulance was made for only $40 million, which is a fifth of most Transformers movies and somehow around half of non-Bay-directed recent release Morbius' budget, but bold moves with eyes on a big prize aren't just fiction in Bay's orbit.
When Ambulance works, it enthrals with its shameless hug of classic Bay trademarks — putting them to fitting use, rather than simply splashing them around because that's his familiar schtick. Drone shots (yes, Bay has discovered drones) are frequently a bane of modern filmmaking, trotted out just because they can be, but they careen and prowl here to add urgency, capture the on-the-road frenzy and plot out LA. Bay's fondness for constantly circling camerawork, as seen when director of photography Roberto De Angelis (Faces Places) can't even shoot Will asking Danny for cash without revolving around Abdul-Mateen and Gyllenhaal, also conveys the many non-stop onslaughts crucial to the movie. In that specific scene, the relentless motion expresses the toll of Will's ongoing struggle for funds, the heady excitement of Danny's lifelong grifting and also the continually spinning dynamic between the two brothers.
Of course, Ambulance's pièce de résistance is all that time spent in its key mode of transport, intensely zipping and zooming around the City of Angels like Bay is making Point Break-meets-Mad Max: Fury Road (and after attempting to riff on Heat first). His commitment to kinetic and frenetic practical effects and stunts instantly makes the movie's stellar midsection stand out — and yes, that Bay's overall aesthetic and approach now looks worlds away from the franchise action fare that monopolises blockbuster cinema at present is part of what makes Ambulance feel like such a treat. Given this was never going to be a flick with clever dialogue, as those nods to The Rock and company make plain, Abdul-Mateen, Gyllenhaal and González all get their finest moments to shine while speeding along as well. All three turn in charismatic performances that invest one-note parts with flair and as much depth as they can in the circumstances, but it's Gyllenhaal in villainous mode who's always utterly mesmerising. Just like Bay, he's having a ball, it shows and it's infectious.
Absent, thankfully, is the filmmaker's past fondness for leering at women (see: the first two Bad Boys movies and anytime Megan Fox appears in the Transformers flicks for especially egregious examples). Instead, that's swapped for ogling LA, its skyscrapers and landmarks, and the chases that blow past them — but Ambulance is still noticeably a sausage fest. It also can't resist overextending its running time at 136 minutes, resulting in a dragging finale. And, it throws in law enforcement- and military-worshipping patriotism that comes as no surprise from the helmer of the dire 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, and clumsily leans on stereotypes with queer and Latino characters. Ambulance's rough patches are eclipsed by its rush, rollicking, dash and dazzle, though, inherent absurdity and all — even if welcoming Bayhem as the current pinnacle of action cinema sounds as preposterous as, well, hijacking an ambulance.
Concrete Playground Trips
Book unique getaways and adventures dreamed up by our editors