Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Matrix Resurrections), Eiza González (Baby Driver)
Director: Michael Bay (Transformers)
Writers: Chris Fedak (Chuck)
Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes
Release Date: 25th March (UK), 8th April (US)
Synopsis: When their heist goes haywire, flustered criminal Danny and his reluctant accomplice/brother Will hijack an ambulance, holding jaded EMT Cam and an injured police officer hostage as they are chased by law enforcement across Los Angeles.
Whilst the public perception of his career is still (and most likely forever will be) dominated by his Transformers movies, Michael Bay is a much more interesting filmmaker than people give him credit for. He’s not particularly introspective or nuanced, but he has filmmaking instincts and a distinctive style that still set him apart from the copycats and journeymen that dominate the action genre. The issue with much of his filmography is a lack of restraint on his worst instincts. His two best films, The Rock and Pain & Gain, were respectively made in either his early career when he didn’t yet have total freedom, or a much smaller picture that didn’t have the scope or budget to go too far off the rails. In summary, Bay excels when he doesn’t have too many toys to distract him and sticks to a simple narrative, which makes a contained action thriller like Ambulance a perfect vehicle for his talents.
Taking the base premise of the 2005 Danish original (which I have not seen, so I cannot compare) and jazzing it up with a Hollywood sheen, Ambulance is one of those movies that’s easy to explain with a “blank-meets-blank” comparison; in this case, Heat meets Speed. It wastes no time in getting to the action, explaining the motivations and dynamics of its three central characters in two scenes or less each, and then immediately leaps to the central heist and doesn’t let go of the accelerator from then until the final moments. It’s a frantic and occasionally exhausting experience as the film moves at a sprinter’s pace for over two hours, and it easily could lose a good twenty minutes of that runtime around the start of the second act, but it’s nigh-impossible to claim that it isn’t engaging or tense. In a rare move for a Bay movie, where plot and spectacle reign over character and theme, Ambulance does actually make just enough room for those humanising elements even as the chase remains ongoing. It’s a basic but solid exploration of family, morality, purpose, and the choice of whether to let those attributes define us or push them aside. It’s really the only Michael Bay movie that I can think of that has anything positive to say that isn’t wrapped up in jingoism or cliches, and whilst that may be a basic ask for most filmmakers that Bay probably should have figured out decades ago, it’s a point in the film’s favour nonetheless.
Whilst there are plenty of other characters floating about connected one way or another to the plot, our core attentions remain pretty focused on the three conscious occupants of the titular vehicle. With the brief amount of time the story gives the leads before literally cutting to the chase, the filmmakers establish our central characters thusly: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Danny is quick-tempered and cruelly sardonic, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Will is desperate and morally conflicted, and Eiza González’s Cam is a committed professional but lacks genuine empathy. For much of the film’s first act, these basic character traits are exploited ad nauseum and it quickly threatens to make the experience even more strenuous. Luckily, that monotony is thankfully broken before it gets tiring and the characters start expressing complexity and developing beyond those core traits. These arcs honestly don’t go anywhere other than the way you may expect, but they are satisfyingly punchy mainly thanks to the solid performances.
Gyllenhaal channels the same manic and unpredictable energy that made him delightfully devilish in Nightcrawler and Spider-Man: Far From Home, and though he certainly does threaten to go OTT there’s always a sense of humanity to his insanity. Yahya continues to show himself as one of the best new talents in mainstream cinema, squeezing every last drop of empathy from a character who could have easily been rote, whilst González is immediately engaging and threatens to steal the show from her male co-stars. There’s not a whole lot to say about the supporting cast, who are mostly made up of the usual stock characters like the rookie cop, the angry captain, and the smug FBI agent, but there are at least a few decent one-liners and interesting quirks amongst them. Also, just wanted to note: Michael, well done on including a prominent gay character and NOT making his sexuality a punchline. Again, this really shouldn’t need congratulating, but just glance back at Bad Boys II for a moment and…yeah, you’ve come a long way, Bay-by.
When it comes to action in Michael Bay movies, audiences should really know what to expect at this point, and by his standards this is easily the most coherently-made of his explosion fests he’s put out in a while. The camera is constantly moving whether it’s justified or not, the editing is frenetic and full of random shots that feel like they were left on the timeline by accident, and it all remains smeared in that putrid and oversaturated orange-and-teal colour grade that every Bay movie has had since Armageddon. As visually cacophonous as the viewing experience may be at times, there’s no denying that the unrepentant energy is intoxicating, with enough memorable moments to stop it all smushing together in your mind like a big Autobot-shaped blob. Ambulance certainly isn’t for the squeamish as there is a lot of bloodshed, particularly in one gruelling moment as Yahya and González engage in high-speed emergency surgery, and who could deny the absurd awesomeness of a remote-control lowrider fitted with a minigun? Top it all off with some wildly inventive use of drone shots that may upset a few stomachs, plus a solid action score from Lorne Balfe, and what you have here is one of the best examples of pure Bayhem in a long, long time.
I think it’s time to stop expecting Michael Bay to conform to standards he has no interest in following, and instead encourage him to the best version of who he is. Ambulance still isn’t the best movie he’s ever put out, but it’s absolutely the kind of film he should focus on making and he’s certainly matured out of some of his worst sophormoric habits. Those who just inherently can’t get on board his style need not apply, but if you’re one of those who grew frustrated by his continued flaggelation of his own credibility on the Transformers movies and just wished he’d return to more grounded action, this is probably what you’ve been waiting for. Maybe don’t pay full price for it, but if you’re going to see it, see it on the biggest screen you can and just go along for the ride; you might want to bring a barf bag though.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10