Will and Danny Sharp are brothers who grew up as the sons of a notorious bank robber. While one (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) left that life behind to join the Marines, the other (Jake Gyllenhaal) took up the family business. Now, Will needs $231,000 to fund his wife’s surgery, so Danny has a deal: Help him with one last heist and all of their money problems will be fixed. Of course, it all goes awry, and soon the brothers are being tailed by everyone in the LAPD. Their ride of choice: an ambulance currently occupied by a paramedic named Cam (Eiza González) and one of the cops they shot. As long as he stays alive, the brothers have a chance to escape.
While Michael Bay made a foray into Netflix originals with the forgettable mess that was 6 Underground, he’s always been a filmmaker defined by the cinema: a brash high-concept blockbuster brat whose films are designed to be viewed on the biggest screen possible with the loudest sound available. If you watch a Michael Bay film and don’t end the experience half-deaf and blinded by the high-contrast cinematography, did you really see a Michael Bay film? This is the guy who redefined the big-budget Hollywood tentpole flick, for better or worse. His fingerprints are all over the franchise fare of the day, yet seldom with the flair that made Bay’s work so distinct in the first place. So, watching Ambulance often feels like you’re front row for the best Summer movie of 2002. It feels like a throwback to a time when a film like this — violent, bombastic, kind of exhausting in its endless propulsion — could sell out cinemas without having to be attached to sixteen other plotlines from a decade of prequels. But is it actually good?
Ambulance is a weird one for Bay skeptics like myself. I never bought the popular internet ethos of him being the worst filmmaker of all time because it was clear that he had a vibrancy and technical prowess that many of his great pretenders didn’t. Still, my patience quickly wore thin for his fratboy giddiness, whether it was all of the casual racism, the endless cuts that inspired motion sickness, or the Megan Fox of it all in the tedious Transformers series. About forty minutes into Ambulance, I started writing a Bayhem checklist in my head and keeping track of how well this film sticks to its director’s auteurist ticks.
Endless cuts that mean a shot seldom lasts longer than five seconds: Yup. The opening minute or so had fourteen cuts that I could count before getting tired.
Characters who never shut up: Oh yes, and there’s more than one of them.
Weird racial stereotypes: Yes, but at least it’s not jive-talking illiterate robots level.
A slavish and unquestioning adoration of the American military and police: This movie sure does love cops, American flags, and drones.
Macho posturing: Every. Damn. Scene.
Overwhelming misogyny that sees every female character written as either a nagging shrew, a ball-busting bitch, or a sex toy: Weirdly no. The women are actual people here, not props for d**k-waving nonsense. I know, I’m surprised too.
Juvenile comedy that is awkwardly shoehorned into supposedly serious moments that makes you wonder if Bay understands the concept of tonal consistency: There’s a scene where the brothers sing along to ‘Sailing’ while a man is on the verge of dying in the back of the ambulance. Enough said.
In many ways, Ambulance is peak Bay but in a way that feels more palatable than, say, the Transformers series. This isn’t to excuse the way that Bay treats any character who isn’t white. This is a man who still cannot help himself. Yet, free of the constraints and demands of a billion-dollar IP, Bay seems to be enjoying the simplicity of an old-school heist flick. And yes, there is a lot of fun to be had. For a $40 million mid-budget title, this thing looks exceedingly expensive. The colors are eye-burningly bright, the drone shots ensure endless movement that keeps up the momentum of the chase, and it never stops.
It’s all pretty gnarly B-movie stuff, including a surprisingly graphic scene where Cam is forced to operate on the cop (hello, ruptured spleens.) The emotions are big and the morality simple. Will is the ‘good’ brother because he served in Afghanistan and possesses a code of ethics, even when the film seemingly forgets it to allow Mateen a few moments of gung-go shoot-em-up fun. Danny is the bad one, an unrelentingly smarmy thief who never shuts up and always has a plan for escape regardless of the cost. Will’s saintly wife and baby son are introduced bathed in golden light while Danny walks into a garage full of pornographically shot vintage cars and brags about his new coffee machine (oh yeah, there’s also a veritable f**kton of product placement because hey, Bay film.) While Mateen is good in his role, the film is Jake Gyllenhaal’s to greedily feast upon. Who would have thought that Gyllenhaal of all people would turn out to be the perfect Bay protagonist? He’s always had a chaotic side that he unleashes for the right roles (Okja, The Sack Lunch Bunch) and here, he’s fully in line with Bay’s ethos of vulgarity and childlike good versus evil madness. He bellows and shrieks and goes on weird asides about flamingos and cashmere. Imagine if John Turturro had abs and you’re halfway there.
In fairness, that seems to have been a blanket direction given by Bay to the cast: yell as if your life in the back of the ambulance depends on it. Don’t expect breathing room or anything remotely resembling narrative ambiguity here. Bay’s always subscribed to the Garth Marenghi school of storytelling: subtext is for cowards. This is the guy who makes multiple references to his own films in the middle of the action, in-between unfettered copaganda and comedy breaks involving a smelly dog. It wears thin eventually, as Bayhem often does, and yet I can’t claim that I didn’t get some old-school action enjoyment out of Ambulance. At a time when all action films share the same greyish color palate and wire-work greenscreen stunt fights in Atlanta carparks, it was pretty refreshing to see all of these Los Angeles locales engulfed in flames and depicted so distinctly by a filmmaker whose ethos hasn’t changed in three decades.
I know that it’s weird to view a Michael Bay film of all things with this pallor of nostalgia, but such are the times we live in. Everything gets that cycle at some point, but I don’t blame you if you’re hesitant to jump on the flaming Bayhem wagon of sound and fury. This film came out a week earlier in the UK and yet, at my two local multiplexes, it’s screening only once a night in the late evening. Meanwhile, Morbius and that wizard movie made by the transphobe are getting multiple screenings a day on several screens. This is where audiences’ interests are shifting, and not even the guy who helped to pave that path can get people to deviate from it when it’s not a franchise IP with post-credit stings. Still, you can’t claim that Bay didn’t understand the assignment. He clearly knew exactly what he wanted to make, how to do it, and how to have fun with it. If nothing else, Jake Gyllenhaal’s having a blast.
Ambulance is in theaters now.
Header Image Source: Universal Pictures