You wouldn’t expect a 136-minute movie about two guys who steal an ambulance after a bank robbery gone wrong to be one of the greatest action films ever made. But AmbuLAnce crackles with legitimate tension between the altruistic purpose and abusive power of those in American public-service jobs. It’s a conundrum unique to our United States, in which there is no ceiling either to fresh absurdities or continually justified outrage.
These notions are captured in some of the most socially explosive, contextually daring imagery director Michael Bay has ever conjured. Upon the film’s theatrical release in April, it was already overwhelmingly difficult to watch indifferently inactive law enforcement officers during the climax. In that specific nanosecond of our crumbling empire, it merely (and Christ, what a depressing qualifier that is) reflected the racial dividing lines of the lives that matter to law enforcement. It hits harder now, after a premixed cocktail of operational incompetence and cowardly ass-covering transformed Texan kids into the latest subjects of useless thoughts and prayers from spineless politicians in the NRA’s pockets.
Bay takes aim at civic peacekeepers’ military overcompensation, too. You know that old saw about a gun at home most likely turned against its owner? That notion erupts in AmbuLAnce. Fools equate Bay’s fetishization of military or police technology for his belief in a conservative ideology that war rules and that boots are best fitted to crush a neck or accept a willing tongue. Only a willfully perverse charlatan would argue Bay’s depiction equals endorsement; the guy took time to dunk on George W. Bush in a Transformers movie of all things. Not for nothing does Bay cast his swirling camera, and considerable doubt, on the “protect and serve” insignia several times. Plus, all the carnage that ensues here stems from a uniformed beat cop hitting on a bank teller who doesn’t know him from Adam. At best, he’s exploiting the uniform to impress her. At worst, he’s intimidating her into feigning enough interest to get him out of her face.
Anyone who’s actually watched most of Bay’s films with a remotely open mind will see he finds tools of force cool in the way most of us find them cool: They are vessels for stunningly kinetic cinema, and AmbuLAnce is Bay’s best since The Rock. Three decades into his career, the director continues to push himself, here with vertiginously stunning first-person drone footage that puts you beneath cars as they leap or at the precise intersection of their crash. Bay also orchestrates the year’s best scene so far, an impromptu surgery at 60 miles per hour both ghoulishly inventive in its fictional escalation and soberingly honest in its reflection on American class attitudes.
Does this review feel too incensed? Well, AmbuLAnce is incensed. Does it feel like someone projecting actual anxieties onto a film in which Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II sing along to Christopher Cross? Well, that’s certainly a funny moment in AmbuLAnce. But it’s funny in the way watching a video of a dog that sounds like it’s singing to Billie Eilish is funny. It’s a respite from the heat of society’s consumptive flame.
The bit here certainly cools Gyllenhaal’s Danny for a moment, as the actor otherwise matches his Nightcrawler energy in an E-ticket action film to outstanding effect. You know Danny’s mind is on everything everywhere all at once. You don’t fully comprehend his desperation until just the right moment of the final act, and it makes the resolution of his story hit harder than it might in another performer’s hands. Gyllenhaal is expertly counterbalanced by Mateen as Danny’s war-hero brother turned heist partner and by Eiza González as Cam, a paramedic just trying to push through their plot without losing lives.
There are no easy outs in AmbuLAnce. No bad-apple cops to throw out like The Negotiator. No well-actually role reversal where the leads heroically stick it to malevolent corporate heels.
No, the criminals who survive this movie are certainly going to jail for a long time. Deliverance is certainly possible, but as the Police once sang: You have to rehumanize yourself. In simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting ways, that’s what Michael Bay has done with AmbuLAnce. Of course it’s his lowest-grossing movie of all time.
Will it find its audience over time? That’s folded up in an almost daily question: How much worse are things going to get before they just stop?
Until that day, AmbuLAnce is a must-own on 4K Blu-ray — with a Dolby Vision color palette as pumped-up and sweaty as its Dolby Atmos soundtrack is enveloping and invigorating. Although a Bay commentary track is sorely missed, there are several featurettes concerning the film’s concept, performers, setting, car chases and aerial photography.