(SPOILERS) My advice is to go with the definite article – the 1990 Larry Cohen movie starring Eric Roberts – but this latest unwieldy slice of Bayhem is nevertheless engaging for the most part. Ambulance is one of his “artier, more character-driven” statements. You know, artier, more character-driven statements replete with gunfire, car chases and seismic explosions.
I shall refrain from analysing Ambulance’s plot, since it would be completely futile. This is a Michael Bay movie, so by definition, it bears scant resemblance to anything located in the real world, with or without giant transforming robots. Sure, it might have been interesting to learn what Chris Fedak’s screenplay looked like before the Baymeister got hold of it; it’s based on Laurits Munch-Petersen and Lars Andreas Pederson’s 2005 Danish original, which ran a slender eighty minutes; this runs almost an hour longer (and yet, by Bay standards, it’s almost reed-like; only Bad Boys, 6 Underground and Pain & Gain come in shorter). Knowing Philip Noyce was once attached doesn’t necessarily mean it was ever any more feasible, as Noyce has Salt and The Bone Collector on his resumé.
Regardless, the tale has ballooned in scope, such that it’s a fair time before our main characters even appropriate the titular vehicle. The opening provides Bay with an extended riff on Heat’s street battle before launching into a variant on Speed, and there’s even time for a drug-den shootout of Tony Scott proportions towards the end (one that admittedly gives the picture a shot in the arm when all that already adrenalised shouting and chasing is wearing rather thin).
Via the mechanically graded introductions of Lorne Balfe’s patented Bay (post-Bruckheimer) score – all sweeping, swelling emotional beats – we’re introduced to Afghanistan veteran Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), at his wits end because he needs money for wife Amy’s (Moses Ingram) surgery. He’s thus fatefully tempted to contact adoptive brother and career-criminal Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), who swiftly inveigles him into a bank heist his team is pulling that day.
So we can see the injustices inherent in the system from the first, per the iniquitous effects of Rockefeller allopathic medicine; if only they were in contact with a reliable alternative health practitioner, just maybe Amy wouldn’t have needed an op. And either way, if it weren’t for the exorbitant infrastructure of corporatised medical care and big pharma, Will wouldn’t have been pushed towards such rash action. The solution, it seems, is giving Amy some of the criminal proceeds on the sly, implicit agreement that the system is unfair, but since nothing can be done about it, one should go right ahead and subvert it. In which regard, it’s a very good thing this is a Michael Bay movie, such that no one will look closely at where a bank robber’s wife got hold of the desperately-needed funds for her operation at such short notice. Sorry, I know I said I wasn’t going to attend to the plot holes.
Ambulance is, obviously, all about Bay’s hyperactive, ADD style, and it’s in full effect throughout, mostly lassoed to engaging action and suspense sequences. That is, providing his attendant straining of credulity doesn’t get to you; as ever, your mileage may vary. Once the robbery goes bad and the brothers are the only survivors, making their escape in the commandeered ambulance containing a cop (Jackson White) Will earlier managed to shoot and the EMT (Eiza González’s Cam) attending to him, the stage is set for Gareth Dillahunt’s captain – and his big slobber dog – to engage his ranks of officers in hot pursuit. He’s soon joined by an FBI officer (Keir O’Donnell) who knew Danny at college (there are shades of The Departed here, with Danny having learned law-enforcement techniques so as to use them for the benefit of the criminal underworld).
Bay’s clearly enjoying himself, particular with an (overused) drone obliging him with even more absurd and extreme camera moves than usual; the picture may have come in cheap by his standards, but it still looks like a large-scale exercise. At no point does he wind down the stimulus, even when the ambulance stops moving (which is where the A Martinez’ Papi and his gang come in). Along the way, there are numerous crashed cars (mostly police ones) and altercations, including heading the wrong way up a freeway and out along a river bed. Bay customarily salutes our brave boys (and girls), hence an interlude where the stalwart emergency services adjourn a game of golf to advise on open-chest surgery. Danny seems to take inspiration from Michael Douglas’ plight in Falling Down (“We’re not the bad guys. We’re just the guys trying to get home”), while Bay even finds time to reference himself (The Rock).
A problem with Bay’s movies generally, and definitely his “lower-key” ones, is that he’s always the biggest star of the ensemble. As a consequence, the characters, a collection of unvarnished stock types, are ill-equipped to rise above themselves when earmarked for entirely competent but unremarkable performers. Ambulance’s exception is Gyllenhaal, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Jake starts out as a (relatively) reasonable, violent-altercation-avoiding felon, but has transformed – not unlike a robot in disguise – into a full-on insaniac come the final scene. This gives him a chance to indulge the kind of demented turns Gyllenhaal’s favoured most over the last few years, to variable success (on the positive end of the scale, Nightcrawler, on the opposite end, Okja). What this means, though, is that he’s at least memorable. As noted, Bay is evidently tipping his hat to the likes of Heat and Speed, but he’d have been best advised to go full Mann and ensure each role, no matter how minor, had its rudiments massaged by a known or inimitable player.
One thing Bay, never historically the most politically-correct filmmaker, has going for him here, whether by intent or design, or a combination of the two, is an opportunity to fly his progressive flag. It seems Dylan O’Brien was originally pegged to play Will, so his loss appears to have been providential; on the side of right, we have a goodly black male veteran in a difficult situation, a goodly Hispanic female nurse (and the real hero) and a goodly gay male FBI guy whose sensitivity puts him ahead of big dog pooch hound Dillahunt. Set that against bad-egg white criminal Jake, and the instigator of all this Bayhem – the white male cop who simply should have avoided chatting up that Asian bank teller – and it’s quite clear where the movie’s messaging lies. Well, okay, apart from the undiluted bad-seed Hispanic gang, the only ones who actually go and kill any cops in the movie. But this is Michael Bay, right? Points for being partly on message, even if erroneously. With any luck, he’ll revert totally to type next time out.
Since he relinquished his reins on the Transformers franchise, Bay has seemed slightly unmoored, seemingly selecting pictures to plug a hole – he initially passed on Ambulance but reconsidered just to get working again – or on the basis of absurd set pieces (if you can remember the plot of 6 Underground, you can remember more than I can). He was revving up Black Five before the plandemic – a self-originated ensemble “drama” – so perhaps he’ll return to it next. Given Ambulance has rather fizzled at the box office, whatever he does, you can sure he’ll want it to be big. Very big.