It’s easy to understand why a lot of people might view the new Michael Bay-directed Ambulance as something of a throwback to his old, balls-out, minimal special effects action romps, one that tears through the streets and highways of Los Angeles, causing complete havoc and chaos at every turn. But I viewed Ambulance as more of an apology-tour exercise for Bay. He’s been accused of being sexist, so he puts a woman in the primary hero role here; he’s had robots in his Transformers movies that come across as racist stereotypes, so he puts a Black man in the antihero role; he’s been accused of being homophobic, so there’s a prominent gay character here; he’s been assessed as being all style and no substance, so he works within a story of a military veteran who can’t makes ends meet and is “forced” to rob a bank in order to get funds for an operation his wife desperately needs. All of theses elements would be worthy additions in most other films, but when Bay incorporates them, it seems suspect.
Directors should always be given the chance to try out different styles and genres, but over his career Michael Bay has chosen to be a director of action films, and the world needs action directions as much as anything else. As a director of scale, Bay is almost untouchable. He may be overly polished, pace his films like everyone in them is on speed, and reduce characters down to a few primary traits that in no way resemble real people, but his ability to stage an action sequence is undeniably impressive (I’m sure many will, in fact, deny that).
The characters in Ambulance are slightly better drawn than in most Bay movies, due in large part to a screenplay by Chris Fedak (adapting the 2005 Danish film Ambulancen). Set over the course of a single day, the movie centers on veteran Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, HBO’s Watchmen, Candyman, The Matrix Resurrections), the spouse of the aforementioned sick wife, Amy (Moses Ingram). When he goes to his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) looking for a hefty six-figure loan, Danny counters with “How about more?” and begins mapping out a robbery which should net them in the neighborhood of $32 million, split four ways. Before we’re even able to assess Will’s discomfort with this idea, the robbery is happening, and we’re off.
What’s interesting about the way Fedak and Bay structure the story is that each time a new character is introduced, we meet them in a situation that has nothing to do with the robbery/escape storyline. A rookie police officer (Jackson White) who features prominently in this story is introduced as being lovesick for a teller at the bank about to be robbed. He politely pushes his way into the bank as it’s being robbed and ends up getting shot as the criminals attempt an escape with cops shooting at them and taking out two members of the team. EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza González, Hobbs & Shaw, Baby Driver) and her partner are introduced saving the life of a little girl after a car crash. It isn’t until later that they are called in to help the downed officer, and they are subsequently carjacked by Danny and Will in order to drive out of the crime scene undetected, taking Cam and the shot cop with them, making them kidnappers on top of bank robbers.
What follows is a chase movie that rarely stops, with the ambulance leading the pack and dozens of police cars following. With Cam attempting to keep the cop alive, Danny and Will fighting with each other (Will is desperate to get the cop to a hospital), and an entire city of law enforcement trying to keep them from escaping, Ambulance starts to resemble Speed for no particular reason, other than it’s more fun to keep things moving fast. Joining the chase are police captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), who heads a team of military-style officers to get these guys, and FBI Agent Anson Clark (Keir O’Donnell), who it turns out is old friends with Danny. As a younger man, Danny attended many FBI training courses to learn how the good guys do their job. It turns out Danny’s late father was a particularly notorious criminal, and Danny has been following in his footsteps to a degree.
As one might expect from a Michael Bay movie, there are outrageous stunts (like police helicopters flying under low bridges along the L.A. River); ridiculous plot points (such as Cam performing surgery on the wounded officer in the back of the speeding ambulance—her hands are literally deep inside his belly at one point); and a tremendous amount of screaming. With Abdul-Mateen playing the man of reason, Gyllenhaal is given permission to do his best Nicolas Cage impression and flip out regularly, letting his mind give way to paranoia and distrust, even suspecting his brother is turning on him. As much fun as it is to watch Gyllenhaal in this mode, Danny is the most difficult character to understand and therefore, I didn’t care whether he lived or died. The film’s moral code is already deeply broken, almost daring us to root for the criminals to get away with their crime. But with no clear motivation for Danny, he just comes across as a series of traits rather than a fully realized character.
It doesn’t help the the movie never really makes it clear exactly what Danny’s escape plan is. Does he think if he drives around long enough, the cops will just get bored and give up? He makes no real effort to conceal his face, so even if he gets away, they know it’s him, and he’ll get caught eventually. More importantly, they know who his partner is, and Will and his family are far more vulnerable. I don’t expect logic from a Michael Bay movie, but I expect sense.
Ambulance was a closer call for me than I was expecting. I genuinely like all of the actors in it, and no one embarrasses themselves in the movie. If anything, they elevate the material and add more to their characters than was ever on the page. The three leads are particularly good, even if they’re put through the paces of a dopey screenplay. I can see what Bay and company were going for, but he’s a creature of habit, and his instincts as a filmmaker are always going to bury him or draw attention to his flaws as a storyteller. Ambulance is loud, explosive, shallow and occasionally fun when it isn’t trying to be a message movie or some sort of ridiculous course correction for Bay.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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