When saying “for better or worse” regarding a Michael Bay film, the implication often seems lean toward worse. I can see that. For all the box office dollars his movies have made, watching his extreme style, complete with rapid editing, vapid characterizations, and shallow plotting, can only go so far for some audiences. At the same time, his unique placement within the realm of auteur filmmakers gives him an edge that produces a response worth considering. Ambulance is a successful Bay film for all the reasons that make Bay who he is, particularly when it doesn’t have to do with transforming robots. It’s an action-thriller that works at producing plenty of excitement in the moment, with so much creative style contained within that it’s a shame the director often gets in his own way of delivering a better film. Still, as popcorn entertainment, this is a wild ride full of signature Bayhem.
Based on an 80-minute Danish film with the same name, this 136-minute remake finds Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Will Sharp desperate for money to pay for his wife’s surgery. He looks to his brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for help. While Will is a decorated veteran, Danny is a career criminal who needs an extra man for a high-paying bank heist. Reluctantly, Will accepts, and it’s the worst decision he could have made. Soon enough, everything goes wrong, and Will and Danny find themselves in a high-speed chase with the cops. They may have the money in tow, but they’re also holding an EMT (Eiza González) and a wounded cop hostage.
While shot on a mid-level budget, Ambulance is the equivalent of a smaller Bay film. Having had to delay another film due to the pandemic, Bay wanted to shoot something cheap and fast just to keep his motor running. Call this an experimental Bay film if you want, but while it may not be trying to match the epic scale of Armageddon or Bad Boys II, there is an interesting balance in watching a city-wide chase taking place, along with a claustrophobic thriller from within the speeding emergency vehicle.
True to form, it’s not as though the scenes inside the ambulance are handled with any more nuance than one would expect from Bay. While the high-speed chase leads to plenty of car crashes, near misses, and lots of ruined fruit carts, the drama between Gyllenhaal, Abdul-Mateen, and Gonzalez has its own crazy highlights. Given the unique scenario presented, Ambulance finds time for close-quarter fights, emergency surgery at high speeds, and even a sing-a-long to break the tension. It’s never uninteresting, but questioning the logic of a Bay film should not be the attitude one walks in with.
As far as the film’s internal logic, however, Ambulance does not betray itself, it just comes up closer to being even better than it is pretty frequently. It would be enough just to have this car chase taking place, allowing the interpersonal drama to help build the tension as we see the police scramble to try and put an end to things. That’s not Bay’s style.
For this film, there are multiple groups of law enforcement officials involved, a variety of squad vehicles, including a couple of helicopters, a subplot focused on the partner of the injured officer wanting to redeem himself, and a criminal group Gyllenhaal calls in to plan his own form of back up. It’s far too much to keep track of, yet it fully feels like what one should expect in a movie like this.
Thinking back to 1994’s Speed, one can look at the basic premise and call it ridiculous, yet the movie finds all the right ways to increase the tension without going overboard. Ambulance, clearly a film using the Jan de Bont hit as at least one influence, has the core story it needs, yet doesn’t know how to reign it in. It’s a shame too, as Bay’s instincts are often best deployed when he’s under certain restrictions. Having to shoot in 3D forced Bay to slow down his filming style for a couple of Transformers films, allowing for some commendable aspects to shine through for those looking for that sort of thing. In Ambulance, a limited budget means finding creative ways to create a kinetic atmosphere that doesn’t simply echo all the car chases we’ve seen before.
The result is the heavy use of FPV drones that are frequently seen barreling down the sides of buildings and zooming right up alongside the many cars on the street at high speeds. It’s great stuff. Using the architecture of various parking structures and more to allow the concrete jungles of LA to further add to the difficulty of navigating an ambulance all over the city provides Bay the opportunity to further show off his ambitions. Does he overdo it with plenty of overedited sequences (matched with slow-mo wide shots)? Yes. Does this film have the mark of a very specific filmmaker, helping it feel like entirely its own thing? Also, yes.
A movie like this is built on the spectacle provided by the filmmaker, and deliberately so. Questioning how it’s possible to treat gunshot wounds inside a moving ambulance will not improve one’s enjoyment of this kind of movie. Bay works to produce entertainment in the moment, complete with the most dazzling visuals applied to both the action and the characters (when the film slows down enough to show off these elements). The deeper themes one may want will be found elsewhere.
By now, this should be clear to his audience. For those who are new, well, Ambulance doesn’t take too long to make viewers aware of the kind of film they are in. Even the pushes toward emotion through Lorne Balfe’s score, very specific heroic/tragic imagery, and some monologue moments are uniquely designed to serve only one purpose before evaporating for the sake of whatever wild thing happens in the very next scene.
Holding all of this together are the actors. I’ve repeatedly said Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is putting in great work all over, and he’s doing what’s needed here. For much of the film, he’s reduced merely to driver and reactionary co-lead, but there are meaty moments later in the movie allowing him a chance to shine. Similarly, González plays the straightest of characters, having to stay grounded and focus her intensity on her EMT skills. Given the lunacy taking place around her, her efforts are appreciated.
The wild card of this film is Gyllenhaal, who brings the sort of bug-eyed manic energy he tends to adopt for this kind of thing. It’s not hard to imagine Gyllenhaal seeing Bay’s energy on set and choosing to go just as big but as a human. Whatever the case, the film is more fun because of the oddball energy he knows he can add, such as detailing the need for assistance on a car chase and the incorrect delivery of plastic garden flamingos on the same phone call.
If there’s a best way to describe Ambulance, it’s noting how the film aims to give audiences their money’s worth of entertainment. There is no shortage of action on display, mixed with big performance from inside and outside the speeding vehicle. Plus, depending on one’s tolerance for over-cranked spectacle, Michael Bay continues to find ways to push his own abilities. Sure, for better or worse, Ambulance is another work of Bayhem, but taking the nuts and bolts of a high-stakes heist movie and finding some dynamite ways to deliver a fun (albeit overlong) flick makes for an experience worth pushing through rush hour to see.