He’s been deemed the next go-to Hollywood filmmaker, the next Tony Scott, and also cinema’s antichrist. Now, in the landscape of major blockbusters being helmed by the likes of Shawn Levy and Jon Watts, filmmaker Michael Bay has been given more respect in recent years for his singularly hyperactive, maximalist sensibilities. After his career low with Transformers: The Last Knight, Bay found himself rebounding slightly with the Netflix-released 6 Underground, a throwback to his more vulgar, distain-for-humanity sense of nihilism found most notably in Bad Boys 2. Now that he’s returned to the theatrical landscape, the cinematic anarchist is back channeling those Tony Scott-isms in a high-octane thrill ride that’s among the directors finest works.
Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an ex-marine struggling to pay his bills. Needing over $200k for his wife’s surgery, Will turns to his career criminal adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for help. Danny recruits Will to be his driver on a bank heist with up to $32M on the line. After one mishap leads to another, the heist goes wrong, fast. With most of their crew wiped up, they hijack an ambulance with EMT Cam (Eiza Gonzalez) treating a wounded cop, shot by none other than by Danny and Will. With the entire LAPD on their tail, led by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt) and FBI agent Clark (Kier O’Donnell), Danny and Will tear through the Los Angeles streets in hopes of getting away with their stolen cash. This is a cops-and-robbers L.A. epic in the vein of Michael Mann’s Heat. It also feels exactly like the kind of film Bay’s Bad Boys and The Rock producers Jerry Bruckheimer and the late, Don Simpson would have produced in the late 80’s to early 90’s.
For less than a quarter of the budget for most modern blockbusters, Michael Bay achieves more thrills and precision than most newer filmmakers. Bay wastes no time getting to the action, with maybe 10-15 minutes of set up and then we’re dropped right in the middle of Bay’s explosive canvass. The filmmaker keeps the sense of tension increasingly palpable throughout Ambulance’s 136 minute runtime, never truly giving you time to breathe.
Roberto De Angelis’ cinematography bracingly captures the beauty amidst all the explosions and flying metal. The filmmakers utilize these drone shots that amplify the thrilling nature of the insane action in display. Every time the film cuts to one of these shots, it’s just awe-inducing. The way the camera moves in and out the action, often swooping through and under some absurd pyrotechnics, giving more spatial awareness to the chaos. It’s a truly unique way of heightening the already gob-smacking stunt work. This film is another shining example of why stunt work deserves to be more widely recognized in the industry.
Bay creates a more clear specificity to the details in his spectacle. One sequence in particular set in the L.A. River echoes the iconic sequence in Terminator 2. The editing by Pietro Scalia, Doug Brandt and Calvin Wimmer rides a fine line between the chaotic, frantic nature of Bay’s style while still keeping the viewer well-oriented in the ever-changing surroundings. Lorne Balfe’s pulsating score also keeps the tension high at all times, while never distracting from the film.
The actors are fully committing to grounding the film with deep portrayals of characters that could otherwise threaten to be two dimensional. As the skilled EMT who has to deal with keeping a wounded cop alive while also fearing for her life, Eiza Gonzalez is given perhaps the biggest dramatic work of her career thus far. Jake Gyllenhaal is clearly revealing in the rare opportunity to play a more antagonistic hothead/borderline sociopath. It’s a performance that is showy, but could have easily been played to simple extremes, and Gyllenhaal, instead, gives layers to this character. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II provides the morally conflicted Will with a deep humanity. You do want to see these characters make it out alive, and much of the fun of Ambulance is seeing what insane directions Bay will take them in.
There’s a surprising emotional payoff to the ending that sheds most of the nihilism that Bay has carried throughout his entire career. It does feel like the filmmaker has actually learned to reign in on his worst tendencies over the past decade and a half and has, dare I say, matured? Well, mostly.
Ambulance’s biggest sin is that it’s about 20 minute too long. The climax is slightly bloated and attempts to bite off too much, with digressions involving the cartel that render the film even a bit repetitive in some instances. There are also quite a few plot holes and gaps of logic to be found, but thankfully the film moves at such a frantic pace, if you stop to think about of anything of it, you’ll miss some extremely gnarly effects onscreen.
Ambulance is exactly the kind of film you want to see from Michael Bay at this point in his career. Bay proves he’s got more than a few new tricks up his sleeves with a 2+ hour adrenaline-charged, chaotic and high-speed chase through Los Angeles. I’m sure Don Simpson would be proud.