Michael Bay once claimed that his filmmaking style—high concept, big budget, machine-like commercial actioners in love with explosions—was far more difficult to deliver than smaller, often prestige films which receive the most industry acclaim. If his latest film is evidence, he probably has a point. It also just may be his best.
In Bay’s more-is-more magnum opus Ambulance, a wild action-thriller about a pair of Los Angeles bank robbers in a hijacked ambulance tearing through every busy L.A. intersection and across every gridlocked freeway, is moviemaking in overdrive, pummeling you, and then pummeling you again, into enjoyment. Mission accomplished. Here is a movie that knows exactly what it’s trying to do and does so, effectively, for 140 minutes.
The best way to enjoy this frenetically paced, surface deep but very entertaining thriller is to just focus on its exhilarating visual design and use of its camera, courtesy of cinematographer Robert DeAngelis, who moves, continues to move and then moves more. And why not? After all, film is a visual medium.
Written by Chris Fedek and Laurits Munch Petersen, based on the 2005 Danish outing Amulancen, the picture opens and turns on a bureaucratic quagmire for war veteran Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who can’t get an insurance claim approved for his wife’s much-needed experimental surgery (a stakes-raising plot device rather than an indictment of big insurance). Backed into a financial corner and without options, Will pays a visit to his “brother” Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), a flush, high-rolling career criminal whose splashy L.A. abode, decked out with dozens of extravagant sports cars, is a world apart from Danny’s tiny tract house.
Unrelated by blood but raised as siblings, Will and Danny have taken disparate life paths of valor and vice. While crime has paid well for Danny, down-on-his-luck family man Will is in desperate need of a loan. Only too happy to provide a cash infusion of a different kind, Danny exploits his brother’s dilemma with a partner-in-crime offer to pull off a $32 million bank job, the biggest in L.A. history.
Across town it’s a typical morning for EMT first responder Cam Thompson (Eiza González), with a reputation as the best in the business evidenced by her compassionate treatment of a juvenile car crash victim with a nastily pierced midsection. Compartmentalizing her work, Cam prefers not knowing her patients’ fates once they are shuttled off to the ER. She also has a rookie EMT sidekick named Scott (Colin Woodell) in tow, his first day on the job. The pair has little clue what is about to come next.
The heist doesn’t exactly rival Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon or Michael Mann’s Heat but it’s nonetheless effectively staged (just watch how the camera glides above and around the proceedings). As the rules of heist pictures dictate, things must go immediately wrong, beginning with the unexpected arrival of a kindly cop, Officer Zach (Jackson White), flirting with a pretty teller. The theft and ensuing escape, including the decimation of Danny’s gang while Danny and Will fight their way out of the bank’s parking garage, Officer Zach taking a bullet. When their getaway car fails to arrive, the robbers commandeer Cam’s ambulance, taking the wounded officer and frightened EMT as hostages.
At this point the picture takes off like a shot, reminiscent of Jan de Bont’s Speed in its relentless drive to nowhere, the increasingly distressed thieves pursued by a determined LAPD captain (Garrett Dillahunt), gay FBI agent and Danny’s former college buddy (Keir O’Donnell), and, later, by a vicious gang kingpin (A. Martinez). Careening through all manner of obstacles and traffic, the trick is keeping Officer Zach alive in back, Cam performing everything from impromptu blood transfusions to emergency surgery without anesthesia, a grisly moment involving a hand placed directly into an abdominal cavity and an inconveniently rupturing spleen.
As the heat gets ratcheted up, Bay stages the exploits with great physical craftsmanship, nodding to the glossy sheen, stunts and practical effects of early 90s urban action thrillers. Ambulance is frequently, tremendously enjoyable, with its camera racing up and over buildings, between viaducts, in and out of moving vehicles and from ground to sky and back; this is a picture in constant motion, making up for minimal substance with ingenious crafts.
Ambulance is also one of the loudest films in history, and the sound design and score are so muscular and prominent they literally blow you back into your seat. Special credit goes to composer Lorne Balfe for the booming, throbbing music underlining nearly every scene.
The cast is uniformly capable with special mention to Gyllenhaal, working hard to characterize his flamboyant criminal as a charming leading man, a terrific actor dressing up a B-movie with humor and charisma. He effectively sells both Danny’s intense manipulations and genuine brotherly love, right to a close-up in the final sequence.
The only action that doesn’t work in Ambulance is the narrative’s falling action after the central conflict is resolved, Bay holding on slightly too long and pushing a bit too hard in a few moments of tidy resolution. Such forcefulness works well with action set-pieces but less so with the people, here put though some unnecessary final motions.
That’s a small quibble. Otherwise, Ambulance is an enjoyable, knowingly ridiculous piece of action filmmaking staged with undeniable gusto; credit where due to Bay and company for their inspired mania in creating a maximalist popcorn movie that keeps topping its own absurdities.
That’s entertainment, as they say.