The first of many escalating inciting incidences in Ambulance comes in the form of one of the most baller moves I’ve ever seen a filmmaker pull. A rookie cop unknowingly interrupts a bank robbery in progress, and all because he wants to ask one of the tellers out on a date. He wasn’t planning on making his move today, but he’s feeling confident because his partner gave him a pep talk… a pep talk in which he quotes Sean Connery…a pep talk in which he quotes Sean Connery in The Rock, a film also by Michael Bay. Whether this was the idea of screenwriter Chris Fedak or Bay himself I will likely never know, but like the Julia Roberts gag in Ocean’s Twelve, it’s the kind of thing that you’re either going to love or hate. If you’re a fan of Michael Bay, you already know where you stand.
Or maybe this nod seemingly from the filmmaker to himself is actually from the script of the original 2005 Danish film Ambulancen, upon which this film is based. Yep, this is Michael Bay’s first direct remake, and a casual perusal of the original film’s IMDB page says that the two films are linked mostly in central concept and not much else. The first giveaway is the run time: Abumlancen clocks in at 80 minutes while Ambulance lands at a behemoth 136 minutes (although that is indeed relatively short by Bay’s standards). My guess is that both movies are lean, mean, real-time heist thrillers, but the latter features much more by way of shiny cars exploding, shiny sets exploding, and shiny people emoting. About 56 additional minutes of it.
One gets the sense that the powers that be came across the original film and said “we could do this, but with Bayhem,” and then they went and did exactly that. And what Bayhem it is! Acting outside of established IP (let’s not say the original is “established IP” because none of us have heard of it, don’t lie), and doing so on a relatively meager budget, the master of hyper kinetic, showy, ridiculous action has delivered one of his best films to date. And this time he brought drones.
As you can see in the trailers, a portion of the action is indeed filmed by drones, employed to dip in and out of the chaos in ways that a larger camera, even in the hands of Michael Bay, has never done before. In action, these drone shots are frequently breathtaking and always exciting. Unfortunately they are used mostly as connective tissue between larger beats, and even though the big money shot promised by the technology never comes to fruition, the application is never not awesome to see. Multiple times a drone camera will dive down the side of a building, giving the audience that roller coaster feel that so few other action filmmakers manage to evoke. Give Bay a few more years of tweaking and I am sure he’ll land on a form of drone usage that truly sings. Notable to this end is that fact that Ambulance was shot on a budget that is positively minuscule when compared to Bay’s filmography (Armageddon had a budget of $140 million way back in 1998, while Ambulance was made for just $40 million).
Doubters of Bay’s abilities as a filmmaker should take note: He makes a very specific type of action film, at least in terms of how it looks, and can evidently execute his craft on limited resources. Like him or not, that’s proof positive that the guy knows what he’s doing. From there it’s just a matter of taste.
Ambulance exists somewhere on the heist movie spectrum, wedged between Wrath of Man, Inside Man, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. We follow multiple parties as they interact with a bank robbery in progress. The robbers themselves are led by Danny and Will Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal and Yaya Abdul-Mateen II, respectively), two brothers with opposite goals. Danny is a successful, albeit shady businessman who sees this heist as just another job. Will, a veteran with a wife in need of surgery, a new baby, and a country that won’t pay out his insurance, doesn’t want to get involved with his shady brother, but relents when it proves to be his only option. Naturally, things go south pretty fast. You see, when a metric fuckton of money is about to be transferred, the authorities are typically watching. Soon, the two brothers are leading the cops on a wild chase through Los Angeles in a stolen ambulance, complete with a dying cop (Jackson White) and a badass EMT (Eiza Gonzalez) as their hostages. Shit explodes, shit explodes, and after that, shit explodes. It’s nuts.
Believability is strained a bit when the complications inherent to this failed heist start to pile up, but if you’re here for full-on realism, you’re at the wrong movie. These escalations, as far-fetched as they are, are of such high imagination, and are released at such a breakneck pace that to stop and think too hard would be a detriment to one’s enjoyment. The knee-jerk reaction that often leads to a full viewer checkout never comes. There’s just no room for it. Once the action gets going — which is about two minutes after the film opens — it doesn’t let up for a second. One scene involving an impossible on-the-go surgery is about as dismissive of reality as it gets, but dammit it’s very well executed, and so bonkers that even the deepest cynic will remain tuned in just to see where the madness goes.
As is typical with Bay, the humor is a mixed bag. Crass, uneven, puerile — but this is all par for the course. By the time an unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal and an oddly chipper (given the situation) Yaya Abdul-Mateen II are flying down the highway with a trail of death and destruction in their wake, singing Christopher Cross’s Sailing, it’s easy to remember a quote from Bay himself that doubles as a mission statement: “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime.”
My inner teenage boy was positively tickled by Ambulance, as was the emotionally stunted 37-year-old man who appears on my exterior. Even though this is a film designed for Bayheads, this is the first in his repertoire that may have the potential to attract new fans. It’s his most accessible work to date, and after decades of being synonymous with dumb action while holding strong with his creative choices, Bay has proven that even a ridiculous artistic vision is one worth realizing. Perhaps the blockbuster world, desperate to crawl out from under the weighted blanket of IP, is ready to let an old friend back into their hearts.
Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Chris Fedak
Starring Yaya Abdul-Mateen II, Eiza Gonzalez, Jake Gyllenhaal, Garret Dillahunt
Rated R, 136 minutes