“There is remarkable synergy and calibration to this movie; controlled excess done skillfully enough to show off, but then keep going.”
by Ken Bakely
Every time I see the title of this movie, it makes me laugh. It’s styled AMBULANCE – to tell you where it’s set, you see – and it’s exactly the level of subtlety I come looking for in Michael Bay’s latest film, and exactly how much I get. The core of this movie becomes his attempt at Speed – a rip-roaring, quasi-real-time chase movie where characters careen around freeways. But one key difference is in the scale. Speed had one key setup, staffed with a small handful of characters; Ambulance overflows with characters and emergencies, too many to count if we could ever be bothered to care. Therefore, the only remedy is to resign yourself to the chaos – and Bay has constructed some truly spectacular action setpieces here, all set up in a restless sequence that’s probably twenty or thirty minutes too long. It’s excessive and indulgent, but executed with a level of command, control, and even – sometimes – a splash of slyness that suggests something wittier going on just under the surface. I don’t think a more self-aware version of the movie would actually be any good, considering that it would then have to grapple with the fact that none of it actually makes any sense, but Bay has been making movies for far too long for me to think that everything – or even anything – going on here was a complete coincidence. This is a completely incomprehensible movie that’s far too long, and it also happens to be monstrously enjoyable. It didn’t get that way by accident.
Ambulance dares you to follow along. Watch as Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) – a veteran stricken by financial problems when his wife (Moses Ingram) needs experimental surgery their insurance won’t cover – reluctantly goes to his bank robber brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), and joins him on his next heist to get the cash. Marvel at how long the movie takes at clarifying the details of the job only to have it inevitably go belly-up, ending with them in hot pursuit – and the sibling rivalry reaching a boiling point– after Will finds himself driving a hijacked ambulance that Danny commandeers, kidnapping its occupants in the process: EMT Cam (Eiza González) and a cop with a bullet wound (Jackson White), the latter of whom does little in the movie except have his spleen rupture about halfway through. Enjoy the sight of a police captain (Garret Dillahunt) and an FBI specialist (Keir O’Donnell) squabbling over the increasingly fraught situation as the chase continues all throughout the highways of Los Angeles. Give yourself over to the refined Bayhem that follows – not only the crashes, explosions, gunshots, and geysers of blood, but the rarefied sight of watching this cast scream Chris Fedak’s gibberish dialogue, yelling at each other and spewing jargon into cell phones that is obviously, completely made-up. If you too would enjoy this, you already know.
Bay, who says he made Ambulance because its relatively limited number of settings made it a feasible project to mount during the COVID-19 pandemic, certainly brings the bombast, but also works with a certain agility (in relative terms) that paradoxically highlights his signature, unhinged style. Ambulance is at its best when it’s as quick, electrified, and restless as its editing. There is something charmingly down-and-dirty about this, and it lets the viewer take in the breathtaking stunts on an individual level, and appreciate the bevy of absurd carnage that steadily piles up as the chase keeps building and building. Cinematographer Roberto de Angelis captures the action with all the catatonic, non-stop movement of pure Bay. And everyone – from the director himself to his cast, as they yell their nonsensical lines with nearly-frightening intensity – is completely committed to it. Michael Bay makes this movie work because he is not afraid. Other directors would take one look at this and hedge – play it a little too overly silly, or a little too grounded. It would be a mess. But the thing about Bay’s particular brand of kinetic actioneering is that it does not make compromises. He is almost frighteningly confident. Almost thirty years into his career, that’s where we are with his work: you can either fight him or, to severely paraphrase, lay your heart open to the chaotic indifference of his universe. And if you do, you’ll appreciate that there is remarkable synergy and calibration to this movie; controlled excess done skillfully enough to show off, but then keep going.