Brothers in arms: Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Michael Bay’s ‘Ambulance’.
AMBULANCE ***1/2 (136 minutes) MA
However frenetic or crazy they get, every Michael Bay action extravaganza contains at least one indelible, perfectly composed image that is so beautiful you could frame it and hang it in an art gallery.
In The Rock we had the Christ-like pose of Nicholas Cage, arms out-stretched, holding two flares to prevent the bombing of Alcatraz. In Pearl Harbor it was the ominous aerial shot of that Japanese bomb descending into the ordnance hold of the USS Arizona. In Armageddon it was the vision of the severed spire of the Chrysler Building crashing tip-first into the street.
In Ambulance, Bay’s latest affirmation that he is the pre-eminent populist action film director of our day, that image might well be one of Bay’s most beautiful as a hijacked LA ambulance careens in slow motion down the concreted Los Angeles River, pursued by two low-flying helicopters.
It’s an exquisitely framed moment of pure action-movie ballet, a perfectly placed grace note in the midst of a prolonged and singularly thrilling car chase that runs for most of the film’s duration.
There’s nothing here that the Michael Bay fans who flocked to his critic-proof Transformer films won’t expect.
His style signatures are all on glorious show: frenetic gun fights; thunderous fireballs that lift vehicles into the air (often with an artful twirl); seemingly countless camera angles; an edit every second or so; and – could we live without it? – that patented action-movie acting style wherein the characters yell as loud and as fast as they can, usually in a rather aggressive manner. Every character in a Michael Bay movie has an attitude, it seems, even the minor ones.
The one big treat on offer in Ambulance is that among the arsenal of technical toys Bay now has to play with are the latest breed of drone cameras.
So the kinetic camerawork we usually get is here supplemented with some pretty stunning drone shots that swoop up, down and around at enormous speed and at vertiginous angles, all with stunning clarity, even as they dive up and down the face of a skyscraper. Michael Bay and drone cameras – a match made in Movie Heaven. It’s fabulous stuff.
Not quite so fabulous, as we still half-expect, is the quality of the story that provides the excuse for all the eye-popping action.
The film’s rather flimsy set-up involves former soldier Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II; Candyman) who goes begging to his adoptive, career criminal brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) to lend him money for the expensive, “experimental” and oddly uninsurable operation his wife needs to save her from an ill-defined malady. (Note: we also saw brothers of different races in 1995’s Money Train).
As luck would have it, Will happens to visit Danny just moments before he is to embark on a major heist; $32 million in cash is sitting in a downtown bank waiting for him and his well-armed crew of idiots to come collect it.
Without needing to make much of a case, Danny persuades his not-very-reluctant brother to risk all and take part in the caper in return for enough cash to cover his wife’s medical bills, plus change.
Inevitably, the heist falls in a heap thanks to the gang’s utter incompetence. Remember Robert De Niro’s crew of professional robbers in Heat? These morons couldn’t shine their shoes.
So when a cop (Jackson White), infatuated by one of the bank’s tellers, turns up mid-robbery to ask her out for a date, Danny has a brief, cheery front-door exchange with him before letting him into the bank.
OK, OK. It’s not very convincing, and while we don’t yet expect A-grade storytelling from Michael Bay movies – though films such as Pain & Gain and 13 Hours show he is trying – we still have to put up with such irritating story holes.
The deal is that our forgiveness of such sins shall be rewarded many times over with great, screen-filling action and Bay keeps up his end of the bargain by delivering lashings of vehicular carnage and dizzying cinematography as the ambulance Will and Danny hijack tries to outrun every police car in LA.
On top of that our sweaty culprits have several choppers to worry about as they keep their cameras trained on the ambulance as it speeds with reckless abandon through the streets. Think Grand Theft Auto V on film.
To buff out the drama and raise the stakes enough for us to care, we’ve got seasoned, hard-headed paramedic Cam Thompson (Eiza González, in the film’s best performance) stuck inside the ambulance with the bad guys as she tries keeping a wounded cop alive.
They are hostages Danny and Will can use to bargain with, provided the cop doesn’t die. If he does, Cam snarkily reminds them, they’ll be up for murder. (Note to the squeamish: hang tight for the improvised surgery-on-the-go scene.)
To Bay’s credit he does get a very good turn out of González; her gutsy paramedic grounds the film’s tornado of action with the requisite amount of humanity for the shebang to carry some dramatic consequence.
So, too, Abdul-Mateen; he brings enough conflicted feelings and self-doubt into the proceedings to give his desperate war veteran a bit of body.
One does wish the annoying impulse to force-inject gags and one liners into action films such as this could be resisted. Ambulance is littered with them, most being pretty lame and off-putting. In the middle of a chase movie is anybody really up for a Boomer-bashing reference to Doogie Howser?
If only more filmmakers took a page out of the Bourne manifesto and realized how much better action stories play without the tension-sapping gags.
Ambulance was made on a relatively low-budget of about $US40 million – that’s about a fifth of a Transformers movie – and in a scant 38-days during the height of the Covid outbreak.
It’s a remake of the 80-minute 2005 Danish film Ambulancen, that Bay consciously kept from watching, and was apparently the result of Bay telling his agent that he was tired of being in Covid lockdown and wanted to make a movie quickly.
Where’s the joke?
For decades now Michael Bay has been on the receiving end of critical contempt he has done nothing to earn, unless you count making big films people like to see.
Despite the massive popularity of his movies Bay has, for reasons that defy common sense, served as a cheap punchline, especially for critics.
Scan the stats on Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll see the huge discrepancy between critics and audiences when it comes to rating his films. So, why the hate? It doesn’t add up.
Truth be told, Bay has long proven himself to be one of the great pop artists of this era.
You don’t have to look hard to see the multi-layered artistry in Bay’s action films – note the dialogue-free sequences in his Transformer films – and there’s no question the Marvel franchise bears his stamp, with the pacing and camera coverage of many superhero films taking their cue from Bay.
Furthermore, the hollow nature of Michael Bay’s “punchline” status is exposed by the fact that whenever critics (or whoever) make jokes about him they always conveniently leave out the name of his biggest supporter, Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg produces many of Bay’s films and famously said at the beginning of the Transformers franchise that he selected him for the gig because he was eager to “get into the Michael Bay business”.
Though Spielberg isn’t associated with Ambulance he is producing Michael Bay’s next film, the long-awaited, long-delayed sci-fi epic Robopocalypse.
Based on the 2011 best-seller by Daniel H. Wilson, Spielberg was going to direct the film about a decade ago. After a long development process, he has assigned Bay to helm it.
So, if people want to make derisive gags about Michael Bay let them knock themselves out, provided they are sure to mention Steven Spielberg in the same breath. Just for the sake of, you know, consistency.
That’s not too much to ask for, surely.