Director: Michael Bay
Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jake Gyllenhaal, Eiza González
There’s a moment before the carnage begins here in which two characters talk, briefly, about the movie The Rock. One quotes Sean Connery directly; the other is oblivious. It’s a tongue-in-cheek little Easter egg, but it gets right to the heart of what’s been missing from our multiplexes lately. Between Transformers movies, Netflix duds and ‘indie’ misfire Pain & Gain, it’s been a good long while since Michael Bay wowed us with his old brand of bravura, bullet-ridden action. Ambulance careens through the bollards to change all that.
Set over the course of a single day in sun-scorched LA, Bay’s latest is a loving throwback to all the testosterone pumping excesses of his ’90s heyday, funnelled through a delightfully wacky high-concept pitch; a bank heist goes wrong and the robbers hijack an ambulance as their getaway vehicle… along with a paramedic and her critical patient. Perfect.
Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is the ‘good’ brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the ‘bad’ brother (yes, brothers). Will – a former marine who can “drive anything” (handy)- has fallen on hard times and goes to Danny for help, just as his career-criminal bro is off to relieve a nearby bank of over $30mil. Bizarrely, he has room on his crew for Will, who has never done anything like this before in his life. Their path is destined to intersect with coldly efficient EMT Cam (Eiza González) and lovelorn cop Zach (Jackson White). And THAT is when the aforementioned carnage begins.
And it doesn’t stop. Once this vehicle gets up to 70mph it doesn’t really slow down, and Chris Fedak’s script (adapted from a Danish film from 2005) remorselessly piles in turn after turn while Will desperately tries to keep control at the wheel. Like a kid towering extra sprinkles on top of an already-overloaded ice cream, the result is garish, sticky and purposed only for messy consumption.
What if Danny were involved in a high-speed police chase, but also organising a birthday party for his six-year-old daughter? What if Cam is cornered into performing surgery in the back of the vehicle when gunshot Zach goes into arrest? What if Danny, desperate to get away, tries to organise a Texas switch with multiple other stolen ambulances under a bridge in the LA river? What if Will and Danny had a fist fight in the cab of the ambulance while driving? Nothing is too absurd to add-in, and Bay ploughs through it like a greatest hits.
Ambulance often feels like a compilation. The cutting is monstrously fast, compacting situations and set-pieces down to their leanest. A succession of radio edits; all bangers. Scenarios that other action movies might devote 15+ minutes to are set-up, executed and forgotten about within three. At times it feels like Bay and his team of editors abandon chronology altogether. If you’re trying to keep track of continuity you’re probably missing the point.
It sounds sloppy – and sometimes it is – but it’s all in service of keeping this adrenaline ride going as fast as possible. Those with a learned knowledge of LA geography might be able to follow or critique the path that Danny and co. take back and forth across the city, but basic geography isn’t even established for most of Bay’s micro sequences, from the bank shoot-out to the cop cars piling up like unimportant collateral damage on the fringes of the story. Ambulance revels in incoherence. Where some action films collapse due to this kind of disregard, Ambulance is oddly strengthened. It becomes a stylistic choice. A collage of violence.
In the middle of all of this we have another wildly entertaining factor. Gyllenhaal – under direction or of his own choosing, who knows – turns to the Nic Cage playbook of character work. Danny is hog wild; having the time of this life, but cut-up over ruining a cashmere pullover. He’s an entitled, gentrified maniac, and he grows into the ideal villain for this piece. Abdul-Mateen II and González, meanwhile, make for an agreeable team working against him as this monster thunders on.
There’s plenty of police presence, and FBI, too. Ambulance is keen to follow the Die Hard model, however, and keep these bickering entities to the sidelines. Bay casts savvily – as he always has – and hands these roles to capable character actors who know how to chew scenery and land a pithy one-liner. Garret Dillahunt, Keir O’Donnell and Olivia Stambouliah do much with very little. In the age of the ACAB hashtag, however, Ambulance walks a tricky line. Ultimately, we’re on the side of the fleeing robbers and their hostages, but the film still covets those boys in blue. This is a Bay picture, after all. Drink every time you see an American flag fluttering in the slow-mo breeze.
And if the action resembles a confused head-on car crash itself, Bay utilises drone photography to high-wire effect around the edges. His crew fly these things in dizzying formations, swooping around buildings, under bridges, alongside freeways. In tandem with the frantic editing, it furthers a sense of perpetually out-of-control forward motion that keeps the viewer bracing from imagined G-force.
There may be plot canyons as opposed to plot holes, but Ambulance is a down and dirty return to Bay’s grubbier, handheld action roots, and a puckish breath of foul exhaust fumes for multiplexes everywhere. Almost too much fun.