Ambulance is a helluva good time at the movies. Michael Bay’s bombastic direction mixed with the use of cameras free of restrictions, doused with the slightest modicum of restraint on Bay’s part, makes for a gripping and, at times, heartbreaking film.
Bay’s Ambulance is such an adrenaline-infused cinematic experience that whatever faults there may be, I find myself easily forgiving them. Written by Chris Fedak, the movie feels like something from the 70s or 80s Hollywood inside a hyper-active Bay, visually polished to a high def digital shine. It is an American tragedy smuggled inside a heist film, filmed at a punishingly breakneck pace.
Fedak’s script manages never to be quite what you’d assume a movie like Ambulance would be. The characters are just a tad messier and hard to define than what we are used to seeing in action movies, especially action movies from Micahel Bay. But, refreshingly, it is a movie where every character believes they are the most intelligent person in the room by being the loudest and most confident.
Brothers Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) Sharp are an unlikely pair. Will is the down on his luck, pushed to the brink, Army veteran in desperate need of money for his wife’s surgery. Danny is the career criminal who draws his brother into an “easy gig” for one final payday of thirty-two million dollars. Anyone who has ever seen a movie before knows that when a character says a job will be easy, it will be anything but.
Danny’s crew isn’t exactly breaking the brain trust but to be fair, Danny’s “plan” doesn’t seem that well thought out, no matter how much Danny says otherwise. Both Will and Danny had troubled childhoods with their father being an infamous bank robber, who is revealed, as the film goes along, was an abusive and violent man. Something that Danny repeatedly tells people, “I’m not my father.” Part of the tragedy of Ambulance is that Danny truly believes it even as we, the audience, begin to understand that they may have more in common than he would like.
The robbery goes sideways-of course. Mainly because a police officer Zach (Jackson White), stops by to ask out one of the bank tellers. Soon, Officer Zach is a hostage, and bullets have begun to fly. Unfortunately, one of them hits Officer Zach, and an ambulance is called onto the scene.
Enter tough as nails but movie-star gorgeous EMT Cam (Eiza Gonzalez). Soon, Will and Danny have taken Cam, Officer Zach, and the ambulance hostage. The movie then proceeds to be one long extended car chase which must seem like a wet dream for a director like Bay.
Ambulance is a low-budget film with a price tag of about forty million dollars, which means that the robbers have stolen enough money to just about make a Michael Bay film in 2022. However, Bay’s visual finesse makes Ambulance look so good it’s almost a poke in the eye when you put it next to movies that have nearly triple their budget but look four times as cheap.
Much of what makes Ambulance the heart-pounding slice of spectacle cinema is due to the perfect synchronicity of director and technology. Roberto De Angelis’s camera lovingly captures Los Angels, warts and all, making the movie a love letter to the city. But it’s the drone camera work of Alex Vanover that Bay utilizes that makes Ambulance so breathtaking. Of course, drone cameras are not new, but they usually are used in place of a helicopter or establishing shots.
Bay, De Angelis, and Vanover instead work together to use drone camera work to frame the action in a sort of voyeuristic manner. Movies nowadays love to make action scenes feel like cut-scenes from video games. But Bay doesn’t have it in him to be that removed. So instead, Bay, De Angelis, and Vanover work together to give the action in Ambulance a sort of sweeping intimacy.
Remarkably, while yes, it makes for terrific action sequences, Bay and his team use the small cramped spaces of the back of the ambulance for the real tension. The car chase scenes are a cavalcade of sleek automobiles in a ballet of collisions and explosions. But it’s scenes like the one where Cam and Will are forced to do exploratory surgery while being talked through the steps by trauma specialists and surgeons using zoom calls and face times.
The scene is intense and is the tour de force of the movie. Bay and his editor Pietro Scalia keenly cut the scene in such a way as to make it both claustrophobic and frenetic, with the blood and medical gore serving as a pressure release. It’s moments such as these that show a more, god forbid, mature side of the legendary testosterone-fueled cinema of Bay.
Bay’s stacked cast makes good use of the frenetic pacing. Gyllenhaal plays Danny with a slice of pathos and a dash of humor that somehow makes him more human. He never plays Danny too over the top, he lets Bay’s direction and the camera’s frantic energy do that for him.
Abdul-Mateen II proves, yet again, that he is a charismatic movie star. His Will is meant to be the audience’s conduit into Danny’s world while also being where our sympathies lie. Abdul-Mateen II effortlessly threads the needle of being the guy we root for while also surprising us by standing by his brother when any sane person would have long let the bastard swing in the wind.
Yet, by far, the MVP of Ambulance is Gonzalez’s Cam. Gonzalez takes a character so cliche that I rolled my eyes early on in the film as Bay and Fedak’s script established how much of a loner and prickly her character is. But Gonzalez takes what is a cardboard cut-out of a character and makes it her own and infuses Cam with vitality and resolve that never feels false.
It feels weird to call Ambulance grounded because it is in no way a movie grounded in reality. But for a Bay film, it does feel strangely intimate with its characters, the stakes feeling smaller and more immediate. Perhaps it is because Fedak’s script isn’t filled with hyper-competent professionals. Instead, he populates the story with characters who are cocky, sometimes good at their job, and have just enough personality to allow the actors to have fun.
Fedak also bolts the roots of the story into the fabric of the city of Los Angeles. I cackled at how Gyllenhaal’s Danny reacts when he hears that Will has turned onto the 105. His voice contains a timbre of disbelief that you can relate to on a bone-deep level if you’re from Los Angeles.
Bay and Fedak pepper Ambulance with characters that allow their actors to have fun. Actors like Garret Dillahunt as Captain Monroe, head of the Special Investigation Section (SIS). A loud and brash officer who would be chomping down on his cigar after every line if this was a different movie in a different time. Instead, he is a proud USC fan who drives a Volkswagon with his Mastiff Nitro.
I don’t know precisely when a man with an oversized dog in a tiny car gag will stop being funny; I only know it’s not in 2022.
Ambulance is, by modern standards, a reminder of how dull and lifeless blockbusters have become over the past decade. Michael Bay films have not always been good, but they have always been unequivocally Michael Bay films.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures
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