It felt like only yesterday when Michael Bay was the laughing stock of film criticism. His hyper-edited, explosive (pun intended) films pervaded the cultural consciousness, frequently earning high box office receipts despite being slammed by the press as head-ache inducing, frequently problematic examples of cinematic sensory overload. 2022 is a very different time. The safe IP-driven blockbuster dominates the cinema. Anything outside that gets a tiny theatrical release or languishes in streaming purgatory. No wonder, then, that the release of Ambulance feels like a breath of fresh air.
Other than a very limited release for Six Underground, Ambulance marks director Michael Bay’s grand return to theaters since 2017’s abysmal Transformers: The Last Knight. Oh boy, is it nice to have him back. Bay cuts right through the BS, getting to the meat of the movie immediately. Based on a 2005 Danish film of the same name, Ambulance follows veteran Marine Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Will finds himself in serious debt, not able to pay for his wife’s surgery. Nowhere else to go, he turns to his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for a loan. Danny proposes something else: a bank heist worth $32 million. Will has no choice but to agree. Things go south quick and they’re forced to hijack the titular ambulance, where an EMT (Eiza González) struggles to keep a cop that Will shot alive.
What Ambulance lacks in complexity, it makes up for in perpetual motion. Michael Bay’s signature penchant for ridiculously over-the-top action, affectionately referred to as “Bayhem”, hits its stride here. The quite literal game of “cops and robbers” gets its fuel from the fast editing style that once earned Bay criticism. In this film, it’s gravy. The constant stream of explosions, practical stunts, and gunfire make the ambulance a cocoon amidst the chaos. Moreover, Bay introduces a new element to his repertoire: the drone. Bay and cinematographer Roberto De Angelis exploit this gadget to create omnipresent, swooping, impossibly smooth shots never seen in an action film before.
Ambulance at times resembles the dumb offspring of Heat and Speed with an affinity for The Evil Dead. What keeps that from being a bad thing is that Bay actually manages to nail the humanity in the picture. Abdul-Matteen II, Gyllenhaal, and González are the pillars on which the film’s stakes rest. Yahya Abdul-Matteen II once again continues to cement his place as a go-to leading man in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal commits commits commits, adding another notch to his belt of out-there characters. Danny Sharp is the cinematic personification of cocaine; a wildcard threatening to blow up the whole enterprise. However, González deserves the most praise, imbuing a character who could’ve been defined simply as “hostage” with real agency. Getting to know these characters intimately lets scenes like a queasy quasi-surgery gain a new level of tension.
Nevertheless, that’s not to say Ambulance speeds by without fault. The usual Bay-isms that plague his other work are there. Frequently off-putting humor? Check. About two or three subplots too many? Bingo. Fetishization of any kind of government or state agency/institution? Do you even have to ask? These are all things that will likely bog down the experience for some audience members. For me, on the other hand, these are strengths. Quirks. The imperfect brush strokes that show that there’s an actual human behind this movie. Maybe in something like the last few Transformers movies, Bay’s maximalism could be grating, but with a simple premise and sturdy script by Chris Fedak, this is the perfect marriage of director and material.
Love him or hate him, Michael Bay is an original. When the trend is to give audiences exactly what they ask for, Bay cooks up something entirely different, making a big portion of it to boot. This particular dish, a variation on the kind of heist movies that used to be all the rage, is a delicacy. Sometimes all you need for a great time at the movies is a sustained chase, clearly defined characters, explosions, and, of course, a wildly overenthusiastic person telling it. Bayhem is back. –James Preston Poole
Ambulance is now in theaters.