Film Review – Ambulance
Ambulance (2022) is Michael Bay’s best film in ages, but how much is that really saying? The director best known for his high-octane action returns with a throwback style thriller. This isn’t a big, sweeping epic like Pearl Harbor (2001) or an over-the-top sci-fi adventure like Transformers (2007), but something more akin to his earlier work. The stripped down, grounded aesthetic has more in common with Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996). Of course, given that this is Michael Bay, “subtlety” is not exactly a line of thinking here. There is enough propulsive action and hyperactive visuals to satiate Bay fans. If you’re looking for pure, non-stop energy, then this might be for you.
Bay’s signature is his constant camera movement and kinetic editing. From the start of his career, Bay rarely has his camera sitting still for more than a few seconds. Here, the cinematography (Robert De Angelis) is in overdrive, panning and shaking and flying all over the place. Simple conversations are accompanied by a frame that whips around them, with the editing (Doug Brandt, Pietro Scalia, Calvin Wimmer) cutting after nearly every line. Drone shots are Bay’s new favorite obsession. He includes numerous angles from high above, with the camera twisting and turning in the air. Establishing shots of Los Angeles are turned into a visual rollercoaster. The camera zooms up and down as if we were seeing the point of view of Superman. Those that are prone to motion sickness will have their endurance tested during these sequences.
Character and story have always taken a back seat in a Michael Bay movie, and this is no exception. The screenplay (Chris Fedak, adapting the Danish film Ambulancen, 2005) provides small, establishing details about our main players before jumping headfirst into the action. Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a veteran with a family and mounting financial problems. To get some fast money, Will calls upon his brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) – a career criminal – for help. Danny recruits Will into his latest scheme: attempting a daring, high stakes bank robbery. It was supposed to be a full proof plan, but from the beginning things go wrong. The police show up, forcing Will and Danny to escape by hijacking an ambulance. What they didn’t prepare for was taking two hostages: paramedic Cam (Eiza González) and the injured cop she is trying to save (Jackson White).
The narrative settles into a high-speed chase as Danny, Will, and Cam try to outrun the police – led by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt) – through the streets of L.A. There are some neat sequences where the production follows the chase through unique areas. Not only does the ambulance careen through highways and backroads, but we also see it weave through underpasses, along the L.A. River, through a convention center, in and out of parking lots and around garages. Bay and his team do a nice job of placing the ambulance in creative spots. It’s too bad that the editing doesn’t allow us enough time to take in each moment. Every time we see a cool shot of police cruisers surrounding the ambulance, or when a helicopter drops out of the sky in pursuit, we cut away before we can take in the spectacle. The pacing is overly anxious to get to the next set piece.
Why are the authorities so inept that they can’t stop a runaway ambulance even though the entire city is watching in real time? Why is Danny still in the crime business when he seems well off? And if that’s the case, why can’t Danny just give Will some money instead of pulling him into this ridiculous plot? Why are there so many apple and flower carts placed everywhere for cars to crash though? These are details the film would rather us not think about – it wants us to ride along with the momentum and not worry about whether any of this makes sense.
Although Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Eiza González make the most of their respective parts, this is really the Jake Gyllenhaal show. Gyllenhaal appears to be having an absolute blast as the anti-hero. His twitchy, hilariously exaggerated performance gives the character of Danny a dangerous spontaneity. Danny is a big talker, always proclaiming that he has a plan even when said plans go haywire. Sometimes it seems Danny talks so much just to convince himself that he will be able to get out of a jam. Danny and Will don’t look like brothers (for obvious reasons) but Danny is so persuasive and wormy that he can manipulate anyone into believing anything. Gyllenhaal doesn’t just make Danny a mustache twirling caricature. He adds just enough charisma and personality so that his heart-to-heart exchanges with Will are just as convincing as when he threatens the police.
One of Bay’s worst tendencies involves inserting cynical, mean-spirited, and immature material to the point of nihilism. We’ll go along having fun only for a graphic shot of violence, an objectifying shot of a woman, or a homophobic joke pop up and deflate the narrative. While much of this is tampered down in Ambulance, there are instances where the tonal imbalance stick out badly. An opening scene involving child endangerment was a cheap and lazy way to generate an emotional reaction. A certain “surgery” sequence might be the worst set piece we get. Not only is it preposterous, it’s also explicit for no apparent reason other than to be explicit. I know, I know, this is a “Michael Bay Film,” and with that comes an expectation for the ludicrous. I’m all for movies that ask us to suspend believability, but some of these aforementioned bits push the limit a little too far.
Bay’s place in modern blockbuster filmmaking has shifted in the last two decades. At one point, he was seen as a director who was devaluing action with his rapid-fire editing and shaky camera tricks. In recent years, when tentpole franchises – namely superhero properties – are churned out like an assembly line product, a growing fanbase has embraced Bay for his unique style. There is no argument that he makes movies his own way. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be decided. I was mostly entertained with what he does here, despite how exhaustive things get by the latter half. There is a sliding scale of enjoyment with Bay. The fact that Ambulance is one of his better efforts is more of a comment on the genre as a whole than anything else.