For all his vaunted juvenile humor and famous fetish for military might, Michael Bay’s Ambulance (stylized AmbuLAnce, denoting the city in which it is set), is a shockingly timely approach to the dichotomy of cops and robbers. It’s not the first movie to follow a desperate veteran, shut out by the system he served, into a life of crime to care for his family. But it may be the first to depict the squad of amoral police officers pursuing him as nothing more than standard cops on a busy Tuesday morning. Usually there’s some level of rationalization: The cops are bad apples, etc. Here, it’s brutality, indifference and the thrill of the hunt in a situation where civilians’ lives are a minor consideration. I’m not saying this is Woke Michael Bay, but it still feels like a surprising turn for a director whose populist instincts have generally not felt this directed.
That isn’t to say Ambulance is not also exactly what it looks like on the box. It’s a two-plus-hour extravaganza of explosions, violence, perverse humor and every possible trick Bay can think up to keep his camera moving at all costs. It’s probably his best film in years, showing more restraint than 6 Underground or any of his five Transformers films without sacrificing anything that’s quintessentially him. Frankly, if you aren’t into his style of restless filmmaking, there’s not much here for you. If you’re someone who appreciates Bay’s fundamental focus on looking for the awesome over the authentic, well, strap in.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Will Sharp, a vet who saw horrors overseas that are nothing compared to working through Veterans Affairs phone lines to see if his government-provided insurance will cover experimental surgery for his ailing wife, Amy (Moses Ingram). Will is stuck in the limbo of looking for work that will never cover the cost of saving her life while arguing in vain with indifferent customer service representatives who don’t give a shit about their predicament. Amy is content, though, knowing she chose an honorable man. She believes in him and only has one request: Don’t look for help from Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), Will’s ne’er-do-well brother. Danny only leads to trouble.
Brotherhood, though, is a tricky thing. Will does contact Danny. Danny does lead him to trouble. See, the day Will shows up at Danny’s garage asking for help, he’s rushed into an armored van and promised a cool couple million dollars just to help out with a little bank heist. Things go south, and the two brothers end up hijacking an ambulance — with the county’s best EMT, Cam (Eiza González) and a wounded cop, Zach (Jackson White), still onboard. Their hostages mean the police, led by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt) won’t just blow up or crash the ambulance, but the situation is made more awkward by the fact that Will is the one who shot Zach during an unexpected skirmish.
It’s a lot to take in, sure, but Bay sets up the main action of the film with a breathless impatience that makes everything simple as can be. We’re in the titular ambulance within the first 30 minutes of the film, and from there it’s a series of action setups and payoffs, massive explosions, shocking violence and the best 65-mph invasive surgery setpiece you’ve haven’t seen yet. It’s vintage Bay, made with the energy of a man who came out of COVID-19 lockdown in late 2020 with a desire to just make something insane.
Although Abdul-Mateen II is reliably great as the Good Man in a Bad Situation, Gyllenhaal gives it his all as the delightful, borderline psychotic Danny. It’s a cross between his scene-stealing performances in Nightcrawler and Velvet Buzzsaw. Gyllenhaal knows he’s in a film by Michael Bay, and he embraces the mania. There are incredible lines of dialogue that wouldn’t land if Danny was played too straight. The two men have great chemistry, too, and their unique background makes for some riotous payoffs later in the film.
Neither, though, would be anywhere without González keeping things together as the only character with moral fiber. Cam is given a surprisingly full character arc, at least in comparison to her bank-robber captors. Not to dive too deep into spoilers (as if the characters are ever the attraction of a Bay film anyway), but her story about learning to care again after having seen so much awfulness feels appropriate given the film’s sheer desperation to exist after 2020 and COVID-19 broke everyone. Cam has to re-engage. She has to figure out how to move forward while not losing herself in the process. These are stray thoughts, and probably more thematic depth than the film warrants, but goddamn, it felt good to see something so gleefully energetic. Cam’s role reflecting the times may not be an intentional script choice, but it feels right.
That’s Bay’s thing: He’s a director who makes films that chase the unique feeling of seeing something novel and exciting. He has always chased toys, usually in the form of military hardware, but this time his big playthings are drones — specifically those piloted by professional drone racers to shoot his action sequences. The result are camera perspectives entirely new to this genre of action filmmaking. We fly through the car crashes. We fly beside ambulances, helicopters and police cars. During a street shootout, the camera starts from an overhead perspective and then whooshes down the side of a skyscraper into the midst of carnage and fear. It’s entirely unnecessary unless the plan is to simply be as cool as possible, in which case Bay succeeds here.
Look, there’s no convincing anyone who doesn’t find Bay’s films appealing to see Ambulance. I’m certainly not going to convince anyone who thinks Bay is a right-winger that his newest film depicts police brutality as a function of systemic oppression forcing good men to make hard choices. It still features all the violence and crude humor he’s known for, sans the misogynistic and homophobic stuff that tarnishes his earlier work. It’s not even the best action film in wide release this weekend. But goddamnit, it delivers on everything it promises and then some. A group of people trapped in an ambulance barreling through Los Angeles at high speeds, everything exploding around them? It’s a hell of a time at the movies.