Michael Bay returns to the multiplex with a high octane thriller involving a bank robbery and a stolen ambulance.
After having spent many years outside of the multiplex – his last feature 6 Underground was mostly left at the whims of Netflix compression – Michael Bay’s Ambulance feels like a direct response to such confinement. The thundering sound mix, the vertigo-inducing, rollercoaster-like swoop of the camera down the sides of skyscrapers, it all feels diametrically opposed to a streaming release.
It could be called Bay’s version of a passion project: the scope is smaller, the scripting more focused as it follows Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his career criminal adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) in a daring bank robbery, Will participating to fund his wife’s towering medical bills. Of course the careful planning goes sideways, and following a Heat-style gunfight in the streets, the brothers hijack an ambulance with the cop they shot plus the paramedic keeping him alive and embark on a prolonged, multistage car chase, not entirely unlike Speed.
Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen II make an entertaining odd couple – the latter memorable and magnetic even though the former gets the louder, showier role, all frayed nerves and violent mania. As the hostage paramedic Cam, Eiza Gonzalez rarely feels helpless, an intense and steely role played entirely straight against the film’s lunacy, but somehow never feels boring.
In portraying this antagonistic trio and the lives they impact, Ambulance, to my surprise, feels much more considerate than the Bayhem of days past, much gentler and surprisingly less vulgar and juvenile in its portrayal of its characters, before some of them eat lead at least. Not to mention that they get to be funny as well as intense, rarely does the comedy in this filmmaker’s oeuvre actually work, but the banter and visual gags feel sharper than usual, the mix of ridiculous bravado and irreverence works in tandem with its adrenaline-fuelled delirium. (There’s a sequence where Gyllenhaal listens to ‘Sailing’ on AirPods to calm down.)
So, of course, a smaller scale and maybe even kinder Michael Bay feature doesn’t exclude gruesome operations, bullets tearing through skulls and fleets of cars being flipped and consumed by explosion, but it’s a comparatively humble effort to what the director is best known for by now (work that the script keeps reminding us of, with characters name-dropping both Bad Boys and The Rock). Shot across 38 days during the pandemic, there’s perhaps a little bit of that reflected in the wistful way it views a bustling city and in how the characters all feel the squeeze of financial obligation, but really you could drop this back in the 90s without changing anything.
That’s to say that the themes of Ambulance, a simple tribute to the city of Los Angeles and its first responders, feels somewhat out of time, and also simply less interesting than the fireworks. After some meticulous setup of the disparate characters and their stake in the chaos to come,