American director Michael Bay has earned quite a reputation in Hollywood and across the world for his, let’s say, “flashy” style of action cinema. Call it trash or unsophisticated filmmaking, the movies he made were able to partly rival other blockbusters from that time, namely the Christopher Nolan and Marvel movies. Needless to say, he’s quite an interesting character as well, always aiming for explosions, American patriotism and adolescent humour to move the plot along. The “un-acclaimed” director of the Transformers movies, The Rock (1996) and Bad Boys II (2003) is back with an LA-based heist movie no less. Filmed during the surge of COVID-19 and with a limited budget and resources, this might be some of his best work in the last ten years (debatable, but I don’t think I’m far off).
Ambulance is available to rent and buy on streaming platforms for some time, but I think it’s necessary to acknowledge that the more recent films from Bay are such ‘over-the-top’ and weird action flicks that are probably best not mentioned again.
Ambulance was adapted from a previous script. The premise, like most of Michael Bay’s films, is quite simple. Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an ex-Marine in financial need who wishes to assist his sick wife and newborn kid accepts a proposition from his rich criminal brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal, a bit crazy here), to rob a bank early in the morning in downtown Los Angeles. Surrounded by criminal amateurs during this heist, everything will turn to s**t in no time when a police officer steps into the bank, which draws a lot of attention from the nearby police cars patrolling the city. Forced to flee with half the money from the vault and all their colleagues either killed or wounded, Will and Danny will highjack an ambulance in the underground parking garage, where paramedic Camille (Eiza Gonzalez) just rescued the wounded officer who happened to walk in the heist and was shot by Will. The four of them will flee in the ambulance, thus starting a 2-hour car chase across greater Los Angeles. As both the paramedic and the wounded cop are hostages in the back, Camille will try everything to keep the wounded alive before he can get to a hospital. With the full force of the LAPD on their tail, Will and Danny also need to keep in mind that the police officer has to stay alive for them to avoid a murder charge if caught. Will all of them come out of this chase alive?
Clearly inspired by LA-based action and heist classics Speed (1994), Heat (1994), Collateral (2004), and a personal favourite of mine from last year, Wrath of Man (2021), Ambulance is a well-made entry in Bay’s filmography that is able to keep us on the edge of our seat from beginning to end.
Apart from the obvious flaws that are common in Bay’s films, I want to start with the movement of his cameras and the overabundance of drone shots. I usually have a strong stomach when watching movies and going on roller-coaster rides, but watching Ambulance did make me a little dizzy. His fast-paced editing, jump cuts and rotating camera movements were so intense that I could have been sick. That says a lot. Less would be preferred. Nonetheless, the quick traveling shots on the road are efficient and there are wonderful wide shots of the ambulance chased by helicopters in the LA River. Regardless of what we might think, the director has a flair for the action genre during chase scenes, and his finest filmmaking since the first Transformers is perhaps in here.
Bay being Bay, the movie is indeed filled with misplaced jokes and humour that pretty much always fall flat (take it from someone who actually enjoys adolescent humour from writers like Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen). Either it’s Gyllenhaal’s character complaining about his cashmere turtleneck being ruined during a heist on a hot day in LA, the Chief of Police bringing his big dog, who is suffering from indigestion, to the crime scene or even the two brothers finding the time to share an Airpod and sing-along to an 80s classic in the middle of a car chase, it never really works. But hey, it is one of Bay’s major trademarks, so put it in your pipe and smoke it!
Let’s talk positives here, because this film is not so bad overall, it’s important to mention. There is a key ingredient that makes Ambulance better than some of his previous work: it is able to build tension! There’s a specific scene that comes to mind and sells the whole thing; it is the emergency surgery in the stomach of the police officer in order to stop the bleeding. As Camille is not a doctor, she has to call to get permission from actual surgeons with Ph.Ds. (nice touch to have them play a foursome on a golf course) to walk her through the procedure. It is a bloody scene, but incredibly efficient as both Camille and Will are inexperienced, and this is happening while driving 95 miles per hour on highway 105 in LA. We actually fear for the officer’s life here.
As was the case of Michael Mann’s movies like Heat and Collateral, Los Angeles is a complex living and breathing entity in Ambulance, the complex highways and traffic patterns add an additional layer of complexity for the characters, and it works well.
I also want to discuss Jake Gyllenhaal really quick. This movie is a rare occasion (maybe Nightcrawler is the exception) where he plays a complete maniac of a character, as he is not the usual first choice to play unhinged psychos. Gyllenhaal is a great actor and has great range, I want to see more roles like this from him. While intelligent but also very funny, he steals the show easily from the others in the ambulance the whole time, as Abdul-Mateen remains stoic. I love his navy turtleneck, but I can’t understand why he would wear that during a heist under the hot California sun. I guess style requires discomfort!
Now we’re asking the $1000 question: is Ambulance good? From an action film perspective, hard to say. It all depends if you respect Michael Bay enough as a filmmaker, which is not the case for most movie critics. Now, comparing it to his previous films, his most recent work is actually pretty good! On par with The Rock (1996) and Pain & Gain (2013), this is easily in his top 5 films. If you are an easy audience and actually enjoy Bay’s work, I highly recommend Ambulance as an evening watch on the biggest TV you have with the full surround sound system on. This movie won’t win anything ever, but it is a very impressive effort as a heist film considering that Bay filmed this during COVID and made LA his confined kingdom. Incredible what you can still achieve in those circumstances. Even for a guy like him, less is more!
Also, I’m all for simple movie titles but…come on…nothing else was available?
FINAL GRADE: 7/10