To the dude in my senior film studies seminar who earned eye rolls with his final project declaring Michael Bay a genius, I owe you a decades-late apology. With each over-the-top movie, the director himself makes a surprisingly cogent argument for auteur theory as every single shot and every single cut (god, so many cuts) bear his distinctive stamp as a filmmaker. Ambulance is the ne plus ultra of his oeuvre, with every frame declaring his authorship. Like the rest of his filmography, this action film is full of big guns, fast cars, 360 shots, seat-shaking sound, and utter nonsense at every whiplash-inducing turn. Yet when so many big-budget movies feel like they were directed by a committee — or no one at all — Ambulance could be directed by no one else. It never lets up for its 136 minutes, thrusting the audience into the midst of an hours-long high-speed chase across Los Angeles, leaving viewers reeling and frankly delighted. It ultimately goes on for far too long, but at least that’s on brand for the director as well.
To its credit, Ambulance doesn’t waste time getting to the action. It spends scant moments introducing Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), hammering home his lack of money, ill wife (Moses Ingram), and infant son, before he’s thrust into a bank heist with his brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal). Will isn’t given much detail on Danny’s grand plan — and neither are we — but Danny promises him millions, more than enough to pay for his wife’s experimental surgery that insurance won’t cover despite Will’s pleading calls. The robbery (inevitably) goes south … or north? West? I don’t know. I have little sense of L.A. geography, and neither does the movie. The chaos leads the brothers to hijack an ambulance with EMT Cam (Eiza González) and an injured cop (Jackson White) inside. With the LAPD and the FBI on their tail, Danny and Will tear through downtown Los Angeles and beyond as they try to escape with their loot — and their lives — intact.
Ambulance is your typical level of Bay bombast. Sadly, it lacks the satirical bite (and ample humor) of the underrated Pain & Gain, and it isn’t really trying to say much, other than a brief commentary on an American healthcare system that is so shitty that you have to rob a bank to try to save your wife’s life. TV writer Chris Fedak (Chuck, Prodigal Son) adapted the screenplay from a 2005 Danish film, and the only idea the movie really cares about is the importance of family, like we’re watching a Fast & Furious spin-off or something. The movie is as empty-headed as one of its characters — a crew member who wears Birkenstocks to the heist — but it’s so full of fun set pieces and bonkers moments that it’s difficult to be too annoyed by its stupidity.
While the Danish original was only 80 minutes, Bay’s Ambulance speeds past the two-hour mark, losing gas as it approaches its never-ending finale. It tries to do too much, packing in a few more scenes than it really needs and lessening the impact of the film as a whole. It’s never boring, but its excess does start to finally feel excessive in its third act.
Given all that, what’s most impressive about Ambulance might be its $40 million budget. How this huge, action-filled movie got made for such a relatively small amount — looking like it cost at least twice that much — is a mystery that can’t be accounted for just by product placement by Heineken non-alcoholic beer, ADT home security, and … Citrix workplace software. (Because branded content on Bloomberg wasn’t enough to get that B2B lead generation?) It appears far less CGI-heavy than most blockbusters, with every car crash and gunshot feeling real and consequential. Meanwhile, as so many filmmakers use drones to cheaply imitate the effects of shots that were formerly only accessible with access to helicopters or planes, Bay takes full advantage of the crafts’ unique maneuverability in innovative ways. There are multiple shots where the camera dive-bombs toward the ground, almost skimming the facades of L.A. buildings. I’m almost thankful that the film isn’t playing in 4DX; getting thrown around with shots like these (on top of all the car crashes) would leave the audience bruised and nauseated.
Bay likely saved some money on his cast; the bench isn’t as deep as many of his films have been in the past. However, Gyllenhaal alone is working hard enough for a half-dozen A-listers. In one scene, he puts on a full-face bulletproof mask (similar to those in Bay’s last film, Netflix’s 6 Underground), and he somehow still makes each emotion visible. You feel every bit of his character’s intensity every second he’s on screen. Abdul-Mateen isn’t given as much to do as his co-star (or even as he was in last year’s Candyman), but he’s still compelling, and this feels like another step to even bigger things. González leaps over the low bar set by Bay for his actresses in the past. Her Cam isn’t given a ton of characterization, but the same criticism can be said for everyone else on screen.
Ambulance doesn’t match the best of L.A. heist cinema like Heat and Point Break, but it is a bananas-emoji-earning crowd pleaser. This is the director at his best, and it’s not because he’s moved away from the tendencies that generally irk critics. Instead, this is the height of Bayhem: it’s basically one long car chase stretched out to feature length that never gives the audience time to breathe — or think. It’s big, silly, and an absolute blast.
“Ambulance” is in theaters Friday.