In his fourth decade of crafting glossy whip-rounds that tend to re-draw the lines of cinema more as entertainment than as an artful medium, or popcorn versus a snuck-in meal, Michael Bay is still hard at work. Still finding those workarounds to maintain a sharp sense of relevancy, while not losing his bite for gritty action and likeable characters with fair intentions. On the old school alignment system, often his worst characters are considerably lawful evil, with even the faintest hint of restraint (likely more so if the budget was somehow kept to a tight $40 million). Maybe that’s the most consistent idea I could latch onto with Bay and screenwriter Chris Fedak’s (Chuck) spin on Speed gone joyfully off the rails with Ambulance. That there is much evil in the world, no matter what side one’s on. But if breaking the rules once means to save the life of a loved one, a very tough decision must be resolved.
It just should not occur while one is trying to bat off police and FBI officials while zipping around in a stolen ambulance across the sprawling urban playground of Los Angeles. That’s the exact position career criminal Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his adopted younger brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) place themselves into. The pair were distanced after their father’s passing, with Danny struggling as a big-time dealmaker wanted by the feds, and Will cleaning up, fighting in Afghanistan, and working hard for wife Amy (Moses Ingram) and their young son. She’s battling a rare cancer, where the only treatment is both experimental and expensive.
Needing at least $200k for the uninsurable costs, the two estranged brothers embark on a major score. In the name of $32 million stolen from a downtown bank. Through a series of mishaps by Danny’s rather inept cronies, the heist goes completely awry, and the sibs make off in the aforementioned emergency vehicle, taking rookie EMT Cam (Eiza González), and Zack (Jackson White), an officer Danny unwillingly shot along for the ride. From there, it’s maddening chaos with officers from varying departments joining forces to stop the chase.
Knowing Michael’s typical filmmaking mindset, one born out of the MTV generation and nurtured by a wave of high-octane action plots in his 90s heyday, there’s not much change. The insanity layers on top of itself the further we get between Danny’s avarice, Will’s neutrality, and Cam’s timidity. Could it be possible the similarly titled 2005 Danish film Fedak is adapting here is a bit chiller? Likely, yes. You never would think this to be a remake with how over-reaching Bay’s sense of tone goes to, hitting dark corners likely not tickled since Bad Boys II, then pivoting back to comedy with little transition, almost frustratingly. Or how hell-bent he is on turning his work into a virtual attraction the Universal parks would love to host, judging off the questionable decision to make aerial drone shots look like drug trips. It’s oftentimes a smart decision at the mercy of DP Roberto de Angelis (Faces Places), other times a dizzying headscratcher. It’s a chase movie, albeit one taking the “spectacle” angle a bit too literally.
And when it’s not specific visual quirks bolstering up Bay’s very quick-thinking vision, it’s a very game ensemble looking to play along, tip their beaks into the crazy. Gyllenhaal’s character, sophisticated in his approach to bank robbery, was tough to like at first glance. Not necessarily a villain, but as much an anti-hero as his bro is trying to stay on level with. He may not carry a mustache worth twirling, but figuratively the gestures are about the same, brimming with frothy anxiety. Bottom line, he can wear crazy well, but a little warmup, and earplugs, are both well required. A lot of yelling is involved to inorganically raise the tension. Abdul-Mateen and González remain plenty committal to the front man’s singular motivation, to finish the job.
Bringing their firm sense of morals against a reckless situation is wont to inject much needed clarity, something even PD Captain Monroe (a grizzled Garret Dillahunt) and FBI agent Clark (Keir O’Donnell) are unable to accomplish, always one step behind their targets. A trio whose McGuffin lies in keeping their cop victim alive. And while Bay does admittedly stop short of playing the card of biting police or medical satire – something better left to TV series like 9-1-1 -, there’s still the startling commonality of where one’s loyalties must lie.
Danny’s ethics are forcibly challenged, which Clark exploits to a degree while mediating. Will and Cam are hoping to maintain some pride as heroes, though they’re not exempt from cross-examining while on the move. Much ground is left uncovered, with a deep basis on character flaws incrementally playing the long game. So the story is far from perfect, ideal, and comprehensible as more moving parts roll in by way of a partner kingpin (A Martinez) and his separate crew. It is one of those stories where we’re lost on its thematic clout, and yet that mindless frame of thinking kept me enthralled wondering how this game could and will conclude.
So yes, it’s likely Ambulance will go down as a dumpster fire with a side of popcorn thrown into one’s lap. It’s exactly the kind of film destined to sell large bags, fueling an appetite for simplistic, tightly focused action yarns sorely missing on marquees as of late. Bay remains ever the self-indulgent master of non-subtle suspense, allowing key intents to go unhinged and esurient. For all the rampage on Gyllenhaal’s behalf, blood boiling and experienced unmatched, the conquest of justice eventually wins out. Fedak’s eye for story does circle its way back to Cam, painting her as the standard do-gooder. Likely would’ve helped to establish that specific dynamic a bit more clearly than the “brothers in arms” plot, right from the get-go.
Faults in perspective, there’s still a great amount of satisfaction with seeing Bay treat film like a defiant, rebellious joyride again, unrestrained in a mostly original story, wreaking havoc in both the overwhelming and the intimate. Solid for the big screen, Ambulance’s future legacy may run more effectively on TV. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Ambulance opens in theaters April 8; rated R for intense violence, bloody images and language throughout; 136 minutes.