I used to say I’ve never seen a Transformers movie, but after sitting through director Michael Bay’s Ambulance, I feel I now have. Bay, a director known for his testosterone-fueled action extravaganzas, has only made fifteen films, but they’ve included high-profile box-office bonanzas such as Bad Boys (one and two), The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and five Transformers films. Ambulance is cut from the same cloth, a film reflecting the director’s unique flair for over-the-top, budget-busting action sequences as unbelievable as they are outrageous, a style some lovingly refer to as “Bay-hem.” Well, “Bay-hem” is alive and well in Ambulance, even if sanity isn’t.
One thing I will give Michael Bay: he does not waste time. He and screenwriter Chris Fedak, who wrote the script based on the Danish film Ambulancen, written by Laurits Munch-Petersen and Lars Andreas Pedersen, obviously believe exposition and setup are best done hurriedly with fast-cut shots set to music. Don’t arrive late, or you’ll miss every main character’s introduction and life story, which is given to us in five minutes, music video style.
Not that character development or motivation or actual story have much to do with Ambulance. Let’s not kid ourselves. All you need to know is Jake Gyllenhaal plays professional bank robber Danny Sharp, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays his brother Will, an Army veteran whose wife needs an experimental surgery his health insurance won’t pay for. In the most predictable and convenient plot point ever written, Will happens to show up at Danny’s place to ask to borrow some money just as he and his gang are about to head out for a long-planned, sophisticated robbery of a massive bank in downtown Los Angeles. As they are going out the door, Danny begs Will to join them, saying they can’t do this job without him. Um, what if Will hadn’t decided to stop by at that exact moment? Never mind, dumb question.
Of course, Will decides he’ll go, as Danny promises him the job will be easy money—get in and get out, no problem. Well, there, of course, is a problem, as the city’s bank robbery task force, headed by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), is lying in wait for them. But what nobody was counting on was a beat cop who happens to wander into the bank in the middle of the heist, throwing everything off, forcing Danny’s gang to escape out the wrong door, prompting a blocks-long shootout with Monroe’s cops.
Meanwhile, Danny and Will manage to escape, taking the cop hostage, and hijack an ambulance, driven by paramedic Cam Thompson (Elia Gonzalez), to try to get away. But an ambulance is hard to hide, and with a cop and a paramedic as hostages, the LAPD activate every unit in the city to chase after them. That’s all in the first twenty minutes. The rest of the 2+ hour movie is a bonkers, insane and dizzying chase involving hundreds of vehicles, thousands of bullets, and more explosions, crashes, and stunts than a James Bond wet dream.
And it is all absolutely preposterous. I mean that in every possible way. Subtlety and rational thought must be checked at the door if there is any hope of eking out any pleasure from this film. Every character is a trope, every gimmick for emotional manipulation is wrung like a sponge, every word of dialogue is wooden and cliched, and every plot point is utterly nonsensical. BUT, if you can get past all of that—and believing that Los Angeles would ever have this little traffic–Ambulance is a wild, ambitious, sometimes hilarious, and impressively-made studio film that we just don’t see made much anymore. Having grown up in the 80s, these kinds of films were de rigueur, but now, with the studio system so fractured, there aren’t many studios willing to support a top-of-the-line action film like this, at least not with Marvel, Star Wars or DC logos stamped at the front.
The actors are merely set dressing, as it’s really impossible for a performance to improve or ruin an action-heavy extravaganza like this, but, even so, Gyllenhaal goes extra-big with his characterization, matching the ridiculousness of the film with his kooky, zany, over-the-top performance, seemingly giddy with madness. Abdul-Mateen II, however, is completely wasted, relegated to injecting an emotional connection that never manifests. Gonzalez is the lone female representative in this sea of overcharged testosterone, and she more than holds her own, despite the lunacy of what she’s asked to do.
The camera work is absolutely stunning, and the stunts are even better. Someone should really check on cinematographer Roberto De Angelis and editors Doug Brandt, Pietro Scalia, and Calvin Wimmer to make sure they are still alive. Ambulance is the kind of movie that depends whole-heartedly on all the names below the line, like stuntmen, second unit directors, drivers, production supervisors, etc., and they all deliver an eye-popping, check-your-brain-at-the-door action thrill ride that is preposterous and insane, but, for those who seek it out, a bit of “Bay-hem” that is, in the end, some ridiculous fun.