Armed with $40 million worth of drones and Jake Gyllenhaal, the action auteur delivers one of his most relentlessly entertaining exercises in cinematic excess.
About an hour into Ambulance, Michael Bay‘s latest symphony of steel and bullets and explosions, the two brothers-turned-robbers at the center of this tale (Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) take a moment of calm amidst their high-speed run through the alleys and freeways of LA. No, they don’t stop driving; they’ve got a flood of cops on their tail. But the least they can do, with their lives on the line and a cop (Jackson White) bleeding out in the back of their stolen ambulance, is throw on some Airpods and sing along together to Christopher Cross’ “Sailing.”
It’s a moment that encapsulates Bay’s approach to filmmaking, and a middle finger to his critics’ distaste for his films’ hyperactive excess and oft-regressive politics. Depending on how you feel about the man and his work, Ambulance won’t dissuade you from that stance: it’s as thrilling, tactile and overwhelming as any of his previous outings, and has all of his most pernicious impulses as well.
Expanded from a 2005 Danish thriller of the same name, Ambulance‘s concept is pretty straightforward: Abdul-Mateen II plays Will Sharp, a veteran Marine struggling to keep his family and finances afloat when the VA can’t float his son’s life-saving surgery. Left with little choice, he reconnects with estranged adoptive brother Danny (Gyllenhaal), whose dad took in Will as a kid and taught them both the ins and outs of the family business-bank robbing.
Now Danny’s continuing the legacy, and ropes Will in on what’s supposed to be a simple job scoring $32 million from a downtown LA bank. But things go wrong, as they naturally do, and before long Will and Danny are speeding away from the scene in a stolen ambulance, along with the aforementioned gut-shot cop and an EMT (Eiza González) held hostage so she can keep the cop alive.
What follows is an eye-popping two hours and fifteen minutes of absolute Bayhem, one deeply in tune with his usual tricks but also throws a few new ones at the screen. Chief among them is Bay’s newfound love of drones, which he zips from shot to shot with all the stomach-flipping speed of a rollercoaster: the camera zooms up to the top of a skyscraper, only to turn around and dive-bomb back to a single character or location. In one sequence, it weaves under a cop car as it’s jumping from an explosion. You get the sensation of watching an excited kid play with his new toy, and that sense of inventiveness and creativity never gets old.
What does, unfortunately, is the script and the pacing, which is just as thin and ropey as you’d expect from Bay. There are some essential elements in Chris Fedak’s script that appeal to Bay’s more interesting concerns: his unyielding love of cops, first responders and the armed forces (his camera lingers over ambulance lights, Marine portraits, the “Protect and Serve” slogans on LAPD sedans), the loyalty of brothers, the satisfaction of watching experts do their jobs with professionalism.
But then there are his more annoying tics–repeated scenes, obnoxious comic relief characters, a curious inability to translate his knowledge of intimate action space to the whole LA journey we’re taking throughout the film. Like many of his works, Ambulance is best enjoyed in the id-scratching immediacy of the moment. Think about what’s happening for a second, and it all falls apart.
That’s the genius of Bay’s particular brand of alchemy, though; the unshackled absurdity is the point. Bay knows his schtick, and sticks to it: characters in this film make explicit reference to Bay’s prior films, like The Rock and Bad BoysIt doesn’t matter as much that the climax hinges on the participation of creaky, stereotypical Mexican drug cartels, or that the police captain leading the chase (Garrett Dillahunt) is wearing USC gear and hauling his horse-sized dog in the backseat. The only thing that matters is that you move forward, race to the next setpiece, run through that fruit cart, flip that cop car. Connective tissue is for nerds, deep characterization for rubes. And if you’re in the right mood, it feels absolutely divine.
It helps, of course, that the central players lean really hard into the project, knowing exactly how far to press the gas to breeze through any holes in their characters. Gyllenhaal is in pure Okja/Mr. Music mode here, and it’s thrilling to see his bitchy-villain phase continue to yield dividends. His Danny is short-tempered, snarky, and caffeinated to high heaven, but Gyllenhaal manages to ground his camp-villain mania in a kind of lonely tragedy–the little brother who competed for Daddy’s love against the favored son.
Abdul-Mateen II, meanwhile, doesn’t get to be as showy, but offers up a relatable protagonist, peppered with a few moments where we get to see Danny and Will’s goofy, fraternal bond (see: “Sailing”). González also acquits herself well, her Cam a closed-off EMT who focuses on the job above all else (as we see in a pre-heist setpiece involving her extricating a young girl from a car crash where a fence has impaled her, her face an exercise in calm). What modest thrills come outside the chases occur in their three-person psychological war waged within the metal confines of the ambulance itself.
The film industry has changed a lot since the 2000s, when Michael Bay was the poster child for big, dumb, lowest-common-denominator filmmaking: Armageddon, Bad Boys II, the Transformerses, all of them derided as the kind of slop only low-class rubes could enjoy. Now here we are, salivating at the prospect of a $40 million action picture made with practical effects not just because it’s not tied to existing IP, but because they actually don’t seem to make movies like this anymore. Bay hasn’t changed, not really, but we have, and in a world where most major movies require tights and are CG-ed to within an inch of their lives, something that feels this tactile and self-consciously silly feels like a breath of fresh air.
Ambulance turns on its lights and races to theaters April 8th.