Review: AMBULANCE, Michael Bay Elevates the Bayhem to Extraordinary Heights
To know Michael Bay is to love and/or hate Michael Bay (the Transformers franchise, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon).
Through three decades and 15 culturally impactful films, up to and including his latest, mid-budgeted actioner, Ambulance, a remake of a little-known, 80-minute-long, 2005 Danish film, Ambulancen, Michael Bay has specialized in delivering a totalistic, all-encompassing filmgoing experience, a visual and narrative style defined by thin plots, one-dimensional characters, and a angular, muscular hyper-kineticism second to none among Bay’s contemporary filmmakers in Hollywood.
Prone to linking his overloaded, sensory-pounding filmmaking style to reflexive, reactionary “America, f*ck yeah!” jingoism, military fetishism, and cartoon masculinity, Bay obviously isn’t for everyone, but he is for anyone who might appreciate Ambulance as the purest distillation of Bay’s filmmaking sensibilities.
The opposite of subtle (another Bay trademark often used, sometimes accurately, as a critique against him), Ambulance centers on the fraught, estranged relationship between adoptive brothers, Daniel “Danny” Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler, Enemy, Prisoners), a successful career criminal with an airplane hangar-sized garage overstuffed with vintage cars and his very own “FBI’s Most Wanted” poster, and William “Will” Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Matrix: Resurrections, Watchmen, Aquaman), a jobless ex-Marine, Afghanistan War veteran, and an adoring, dedicated father of one.
He’s also conveniently/coincidentally drowning in medical debt, a wife, Amy (Moses Ingram), in need of extremely expensive, experimental surgery to save her life, and an emotional weak spot for the Caucasian brother whose criminal family young, orphaned Will joined as brother and son. Danny’s rep, though, means that he’s persona non grata with the quietly suffering, if generally supportive, Amy.
Sidestepping Amy’s pleas to stay away from Danny, Will seeks out Danny at his criminal lair (the aforementioned vintage car garage), and asks for a loan. Working on Will’s guilt over their estrangement, among other misguided ideas, Danny easily overcomes Will’s initial reluctance, convincing the cash-strapped Will to join him and a crew of rough-looking dudes on a supposedly fool-proof heist of a cool $32 million in cash.
Less of a planner, apparently, than a talker or doer, Danny, his crew of soon-to-be-dispatched stereotypes, and Will head out. Almost immediately, the heist goes sideways, upside-down, and downside up, leaving Danny and Will separated from their crew, a heavily militarized police force en route, and the only way out is an ambulance transporting a mortally wounded police officer, Zach (Jackson White), and the EMT, Cam Thompson (Eiza González), trying to save Zach’s life before he bleeds out.
All that, of course, is prologue, briefly establishing characters, relationships, and plot in rapid-fire succession. Bay moves through the set-up at the speed of an intercontinental ballistic missile about to start a world war, hoping, not without some justification, that the audience will look past the massive coincidence that places Will at Danny’s doorstep mere moments before Danny and his crew execute a supposedly well-planned, mask-free heist (it’s not), but as always with Bay, logic, plausibility, even the laws of physics mean next to nothing. Throwing Will and Danny into the same, claustrophobic space as Cam and the dying cop also gives the LAPD, the sheriff’s department, and the local FBI the slimmest of rationales for keeping a respectable distance from the hijacked ambulance and its occupants rather than driving them off the road or highway.
Over the course of almost two-and-a-half gloriously frenzied, self-indulgent, and draining hours, though, Ambulance crams in a series of ever escalating, increasingly ludicrous set pieces. That, in turn, gives Bay, a filmmaker instinctively opposed to the concept of the long take or varying shot lengths, to increase or decrease tension as needed, the opportunity to utilize every tool in his toolkit, from the borderline incoherent rapid-fire editing, the intentionally rough-looking camera angles and constant, frenetic movement, the perpetual twilight (“magic hour”), orange-glowed cinematography, to a fleet of camera-mounted drones (the better for the camera to drop vertiginously, swoop down and through a car chase, and somehow make it on through the other side). And more often than not, Bay’s style isn’t so much in service of story or even character, but purely in service of and for itself.
Bay’s hyperactive style doesn’t give much, if any, room for performances beyond the superficial and perfunctory, but it’s obvious that Gyllenhaal, Abdul-Mateen II, and González know exactly what Ambulance requires, Gyllenhaal in sweaty, psycho-killer mode incapable of affection for anyone except his adopted brother, Abdul-Mateen II the otherwise heroic warrior with a moral code (a good man making bad choices), and González the professional with a messy personal life. That they bring some measure of life and dimensionality to otherwise rote roles says more about their professionalism than Bay’s direction or Chris Fedak’s (Prodigal Son, Deception, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) high-concept, occasionally derivative screenplay (i.e., Speed by way of Heat and Bad Boys).
For most, if not, all members of the audience on the other side of the screen, familiar with Bay’s brand of “Bayhem” (controlled chaos and/or creative destruction), Ambulance will be like spending time with an old friend, albeit an over-indulgent, sometimes exhausting one.
Ambulance opens Friday, April 8, exclusively in movie theaters. Visit the official site for locations and showtimes.
- Michael Bay
- Chris Fedak
- Laurits Munch-Petersen
- Lars Andreas Pedersen
- Jake Gyllenhaal
- Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
- Eiza González