The name “Michael Bay” remains synonymous with The Rock and Armageddon, both movies that came out over twenty years ago. Before Pearl Harbor and The Island turned out to be such catastrophic disgraces that we all collectively agreed to sweep them under the rug and pretend they never happened. Then 2007 came, and Bay got himself bogged down in the Transformers franchise until the wheels finally came off.

Over the past few years, Bay has tried his hand at films made and marketed as more intellectual fare. The results — the uneven Pain & Gain and the underrated 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi — didn’t take off. Shortly afterwards, Bay stepped away from Transformers and Bad Boys, easily his two signature franchises. Looking back all of this, it’s like Bay keeps trying to reinvent himself as a bona fide auteur, and I don’t know if he’s punching above his weight class and/or the audience simply doesn’t want that, but it just isn’t happening.

So here’s Ambulance, which promises a return to the old tried-and-true Bayhem. In fact, I’d argue the film delivered a great deal more.

(Side note: In this movie, one character quotes The Rock, and another character mistakes it for a quotation from Dwayne Johnson. Bay supposedly intended that as a tribute to the late great Sean Connery, but it comes off as a self-own with regards to how long it’s been since Bay’s filmmaking prime.)

This is the story of Danny Sharp and his adoptive brother Will, respectively played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. (Mother of God and all her wacky nephews, spell-checking this review is gonna be a bitch.) Their father was a notorious bank robber with extensive connections in the LA criminal underground, known for killing a number of poor citizens who got in his way. Danny has been keeping up his late father’s business, though he’s kept out of jail so far, mostly because he doesn’t kill people and he’s got a thriving luxury car business to serve as a viable front.

Meanwhile, Will enlisted with the Marines and served in Afghanistan. He even got married at some point (his wife is Amy Sharp, played by Moses Ingram) and they’re raising an infant son together. Alas, Will has had trouble finding a job ever since he got back, and the VA won’t help with an experimental surgery his wife needs. Desperate for a couple hundred thousand dollars to cover the expense, Will makes a deal with his brother and comes aboard Danny’s latest bank heist.

The heist goes tits-up pretty much immediately, and the whole thing quickly unravels into a strong contender for the most catastrophic bank heist in film history. Enough collateral damage to make the Toretto Gang wince. Somewhere in New York, Spider-Man is looking at the city-wide chaos unfolding in L.A. and going “Sucks to be you!”

Long story short, some idiot rookie cop (Zach, played by Jackson White) tries to be a hero and gets himself shot. If it sounds like I’m being too hard on the guy, it’s worth pointing out that he ignored every sign of danger and walked directly into a bank heist in progress, because he had a crush on a bank teller and wanted to ask her out while the both of them were on their respective jobs. Maybe it’s just me, but my sympathy is a little thin.

Anyway, Will makes a terrible snap decision in the heat of an especially tense moment and shoots Zach. Now he and Danny need a getaway vehicle, and they need the cop to live so they can avoid charges of murdering a police officer. Enter Cam Thompson (Eiza Gonzalez), a hotshot EMT who responds to the “officer down” call. Danny and Will carjack the ambulance, holding Cam and Zach hostage. The next two hours are a continuous car chase in which Danny and Will try to outrun the LAPD while Cam and everyone on both sides of the law tries to keep Zach alive.

At this point, it’s perhaps worth remembering what we’re dealing with. With regards to the actual characters involved, I think a friend of mine — a retired banker — put it best: “If you’re dumb enough to rob a bank, you’re dumb enough to get caught.” Secondly, this is a movie from Michael Bay, the man who built his career on making propaganda for the USA, the U.S. military, domestic law enforcement, and so on. Furthermore, there’s no possible way a film of this scale could’ve been made without extensive help from the LAPD and L.A. City Hall, and they sure as hell wouldn’t have signed on to a project that ended with the bank robbers getting away.

We know from the outset there’s only one way this story is going to end. Then again, this film isn’t exactly being sold on its story.

For better or worse, Michael Bay only has one speed, and that’s full-goddamn-throttle. Even during the quieter scenes, we’ve still got the bombastic score and the lens flares and the Dutch angles and the swooping camera movements and the shaky cam and the close-ups tight enough to count the beads of sweat on someone’s nose.

With all due respect to the amazing actors in this wonderful cast, the real star here is whomever was operating that drone camera. I’m talking about dizzying shots that dive and zoom and bank and swirl, going faster and tighter than would be physically possible with any helicopter or crane shot. These are shots that would only have been possible with CGI even five years ago, and Bay is shooting them all practically!

This only adds to what has quickly become the very definition of Bayhem: The constant feeling of an adrenaline rush through every second of the runtime. I was astounded to find out that after two hour’s worth of action scenes and plot developments, I was still only 45 minutes into this 130-minute movie. By the end, I felt like I had just marathoned a five-hour miniseries in one go.

(Side note: It bears mentioning that the film was adapted from Ambulancen, a Danish film released in 2005. That movie was 80 minutes long. This one clocks in at 136 minutes. I haven’t seen the original Danish film, but I’d be very interested to see what got put into that extra hour of runtime and what the original film would be like without it, because DAMN.)

Though I must commend Bay for making the most of every second of screen time, and there’s absolutely something to be said for a thrill-a-minute action flick, there’s also something to be said for taking a moment to slow down and fucking breathe every now and again. Your mileage may vary, of course, but everyone has a certain threshold in which keeping up too much adrenaline for too long a time goes from fun to exhausting to torturous.

Now, you might be thinking that this is just a fast and brainless action flick that has nothing to offer except for car chases and shootouts. The action is an end in itself, right? I’m not so sure. After all, so much of the action is rooted in suspense and the agonizing question of what life-or-death choice our characters will make in any given scenario. That only works if we’re given a reason to sympathize with the characters. Furthermore, Cam is solidly and explicitly positioned as the impartial moral arbiter of the film, which wouldn’t make any sense if there wasn’t a moral at all. So let’s try and dig a bit deeper, shall we?

It’s worth repeating that at the very start of the film, Will is on the phone struggling to deal with an insurance bureaucracy that steadfastly refuses to spend the money necessary for Will’s wife to undergo a life-saving surgery. It’s the whole reason he’s desperate enough to take part in this bank heist at all. Moreover, both he and Danny state multiple times that the both of them want to be better men than their homicidal father was. Though the both of them have their own selfish reasons to keep Officer Zach alive and avoid any murder charges, the fact remains that neither one of them wants to get rich at the expense of someone else’s life.

As for Cam, she’s first introduced rescuing a young girl (Lindsey, played by Briella Guiza) from a car wreck, then shows ruthless apathy toward the girl and her new partner (rookie EMT Scott, played by Colin Woodell) in the very next scene. Cam explains that this is just a job. She shows up, keeps the patient alive long enough to hand them off to the ER doctors, then wipes the slate clean and starts over. The worst day of someone else’s life is just another Tuesday afternoon to her. I don’t want to spoil exactly how Cam’s development arc ends up, but suffice to say her viewpoint changes considerably after going through the worst day of her own life.

As best I can sum it up, the moral of this particular story is probably “It’s never ‘just business’ when someone’s life is on the line.”

Moving on, there’s the matter of the cast. Abdul-Mateen is playing well within his established comfort zone here. Gonzalez is of course a beautiful woman viewed through Bay’s testosterone-fueled camera, but it helps that she’s playing a hardcore professional with brains, heart, and guts in equal measure. This is a starmaking performance from her, and I take back all the times I ever called her a second-rate Ana de Armas. As for Gyllenhaal, he’s clearly pulling from the same kind of manic and obsessive energy we’ve seen in his earlier villainous works (Spider-Man: No Way Home and Nightcrawler, for instance), but it’s tempered with genuine affection and concern for his brother. That duality makes for a character who’s slippery and unpredictable enough to keep the plot moving. Nicely done.

As for the supporting cast, Garrett Dillahunt once again proves himself a tragically underappreciated character actor, and Keir O’Donnell turns in some laudable work as well. Olivia Stambouliah does a fine job playing a smart-aleck comic relief, and A Martinez turns in serviceable work as a local gang boss. Alas, Jackson White and Cedric Sanders only come off as one-dimensional plot devices, despite their best efforts. Though it certainly doesn’t help that White’s character is unconscious through most of the film.

For better or worse, Ambulance is exhausting. It’s a film that goes directly to 11 and stays there through every second of the runtime. Major kudos are due to Gyllenhaal, Abdul-Mateen, and Gonzalez, all three of whom carry the film admirably, but the film is at least as dependent on Doug Brandt, Pietro Scalia, and Calvin Wimmer, the three editors who stitched together this goddamn movie. But even more than all of the above, this film belongs to Michael Bay and DoP Roberto de Angelis for the spellbinding car chases and their revolutionary use of drone cameras.

It’s doing Michael Bay a grave disservice to say that this film marks a return to his peak form. No, this is Michael Bay updating his old playbook to work with modern audiences and the latest technology. This could potentially be a proof of concept for what Michael Bay’s brand and career will look like post-Transformers. Personally, I’m anxious to see where this goes.

If it’s a thrill ride you’re looking for, don’t let this one pass you by.


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