Ambulance’s premise is ingeniously simple. Two brothers rob a bank. The heist goes bad and a cop gets shot. Police swarm the bank and the only way for the brothers to escape is in the ambulance carrying the injured police officer. Now the chase is on, with the LAPD pursuing the ambulance while one brave EMT inside it tries to save the dying cop’s life.
That’s a perfect setup for a lean, taut 85 minute thriller. But Ambulance was directed by Michael Bay, and Michael Bay doesn’t make lean, taut thrillers. So instead the film becomes a bloated 135-minute tour through all of Bay’s greatest strengths and worst impulses. Some sequences are gloriously kinetic and feature truly inventive images. Others drag the film down with pointless subplots and dopey attempts at comic relief. Bay here is like the Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde of filmmakers. One minute you’re convinced he’s the greatest action director of the last 40 years. The next, you’re awash in images so chaotic that they could play as outtakes from his Transformers movies.
Even if Bay doesn’t stick the landing, Ambulance’s first act is clearly one of the best things he’s ever done. It introduces the bank-robbing brothers: Fast-talking Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) and stoic war veteran Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Danny’s father adopted Will when he was young, but snippets of dialogue reveal this was not a happy childhood for anyone — even if Bay confuses things a bit by throwing in magic hour slo-mo flashbacks to Danny and Will as kids blissfully playing cops and robbers in a lot full of vintage cars.
Apparently, while Will and Danny were off having fun, dear old dad was out robbing banks. When his sons grew up, he wanted them to join the family business. Danny did; Will went into the military in order to avoid a life of crime. Now he’s home from Afghanistan and out of work, so he can’t afford the “experimental surgery” his wife needs. So Will agrees to join Danny on a robbery that can supposedly net them $32 million in cash.
Meanwhile, a tough-as-nails EMT named Cam (Eiza González) is busy breaking in a new partner (Colin Woodell). He claims she’s so focused on her work that she’s earned a bad reputation around their department as a cold, unfeeling grump. She’s also so good at her job that she can supposedly keep anyone alive in an ambulance for 20 minutes — but only 20 minutes, a fact that seems like it should come into play later in the film, but doesn’t.
That’s typical of Bay’s recent work, which emphasizes eye-popping visuals over any semblance of narrative coherence or clever plotting. Similarly, Ambulance is not the sort of heist picture where the crooks carefully lay out their plan so the audience can get wrapped up in each step and unexpected obstacle. Bay is in such a hurry to get to the car chases that he even skips over a bunch of the actual bank robbery. At this point in his career, I expect nothing less from Bay. Asking him for a lucid and logical caper story is like asking a giraffe for a haircut. It is simply not in his nature.
Bay’s forte is and has always been frenetic shootouts and chase scenes, and the one that erupts out of Danny and Will’s botched bank robbery is among his very best. He augments his usual visual tricks like low-angle hero shots and slow-motion explosions with deft drone shots. Now Bay’s camera is even more hyperactive than ever before. It races through the streets and parking garages of downtown LA, and dive bombs into the middle of the action in swooping, swirling arcs. In a truly spectacular moment, a drone flies under a cop car right as it launches into the air from an improvised ramp. Drone shots have become more commonplace in films over the last few years, but no one has used them with this much inventiveness or adrenalized fun. It’s like watching someone invent a whole new language of action cinema.
Eventually, though, Ambulance begins to drone on so long that the intensity starts to flag. Bay is a dynamic visual storyteller, but he’s much better at the visual component than the actual storytelling. After a while, it just feels our heroes are driving around in circles; there’s no clear sense where they are headed, or objectives they need to accomplish in order to escape. Bay strings together one big setpiece after another with little to no regard how they connect. Quick bursts of ADR dialogue are left to explain how the ambulance got from downtown to a highway overpass to the L.A. River to an underworld warehouse.
The script’s compact setup — based on an earlier Danish film of the same name — offers plenty of opportunity for character development, if Bay had any interest in such mundane matters. Gyllenhaal is amusingly unhinged as Danny and González plays a convincing health care worker, but they never really change or grow in any significant way, and Bay’s last-minute attempt to make it seem like this experience has changed the characters is laughable in its unearned sentimentality. Abdul-Mateen, maybe the best actor of the bunch, also has the least to do; he spends a huge chunk of his screen time just nervously checking his rearview mirror.
By the time Ambulance threw a ludicrous Latin gang into its mix of cops and crooks — complete with a remote-controlled lowrider fitted with a Minigun! — I had pretty much checked out. But those early scenes and their wild drone shots reminded me of the experience seeing The Rock for the first time, when it felt like Michael Bay was one of the most promising new directors of the 1990s. Ambulance shows that guy’s still in there somewhere, even if Mr. Hyde doesn’t let him out very often.
-The scene stealer in the cast is Garret Dillahunt, who plays the Los Angeles police captain leading the pursuit for Danny and Will. Dressed in a USC hat and hoodie, and driving around with an enormous dog, Dillahunt finds just the right balance between no-nonsense police jargon and total nonsense one-liners. He has a lot of fun dressing down his underlings and generally acting like a badass.
-This is Michael Bay’s second movie in a row where someone performs improvised surgery inside a speeding vehicle in the middle of a police chase. What’s up with that?
-All those signature Michael Bay low-angle shots make it clear Ambulance was made in Los Angeles, on real streets and around real buildings. With more and more movies seemingly shot in front of a green screen, and filled with atrocious CGI backgrounds, it’s so refreshing to see an action movie that looks like it take place in the real world, and features practical stunts. That shouldn’t be uncommon, but these days it really is.
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