Michael Bay is the king of kaboom. No one in Hollywood makes over-the-top blockbusters like Bay. Not Christopher Nolan. Not Steven Spielberg. And not even Marvel Studios’ MVPs, the Russo brothers.
The premise of Bay’s latest film Ambulance sees two brothers trapped in an ambulance while on the run from the police. The film may sound low-stakes by Bay movie standards; it lacks alien robots, giant asteroids, and sexy assassins. But don’t let the grounded setup fool you. In terms of thrills per minute, Ambulance is Bay’s most action-packed movie yet.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Will, a military vet who can’t catch a break. He’s out of work, and his insurance won’t pay for his wife’s life-saving surgery. With no other option, Will turns to his no-good brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for help. Danny is also in a pinch. He’s a bank robber who needs one more accomplice to pull off his biggest heist yet.
Danny convinces Will to join him on this life-changing score. It should be a piece of cake, and nobody should get hurt. But things go sideways when a lovestruck cop interrupts the robbery to hit on a bank teller. A spectacular shootout ensues as an elite crime-fighting unit swarms the scene.
Will and Danny escape by the skin of their teeth. They hijack an ambulance along with a wounded cop and Cam (Eiza González), the EMT struggling to keep him alive. With every cop in L.A. hot on their trail, the brothers must put aside their differences if they hope to ride off into the sunset.
Ambulance uses every second of its 136-minute runtime to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. This film is all caps INTENSE. Watching the first twenty minutes is like sitting on a ticking bomb. And when that bomb blasts, it hurtles viewers into two-straight hours of chaos.
You read that correctly. Ambulance delivers two hours of nonstop Bay-hem. This may be a selling point or reason to skip this movie. Bay’s long-time fans should enjoy the ceaseless carnage. But the film will push everyone else to their breaking point. Ambulance never takes its foot off the gas, so I don’t blame anyone who thinks it’s a hyperkinetic slog.
Bay teams with cinematographer Roberto De Angelis to launch an all-out assault on your senses. The camera refuses to sit still, always rocking and jittering as though they mounted it on a slab of jelly. It features many tight closeups of the actors’ gorgeous sweaty faces, creating a sense of claustrophobia.
The film’s aesthetic shifts between exhilarating and obnoxious. The camera constantly draws attention to itself, swooping and swaying amidst the action in a grand fashion. Sure these shots look badass in the heat of a firefight or when introducing new characters. But the camera stays at peak intensity during intimate moments, like when two people are just talking.
Bay was on a drone kick when he made Ambulance because he packs the film with some of the wildest drone shots I’ve ever seen. The camera often soars high into the sky before dive-bombing straight down in stomach-churning corkscrews.
At times, Bay and De Angelis even employ drones indoors, zigzagging in and out of the action from perspectives I haven’t seen in live-action films. Make no mistake, Bay goes the extra mile on every shot, and these creative flourishes look incredible… at first. But these moments lose their lustre amongst the nonstop visual chaos.
Great action movies have an ebb and flow to them. They build tension, pay it off, and then give the audience time to collect themselves before the next big moment. Ambulance keeps ratcheting up the tension without letting viewers catch their breath. It’s a recipe for adrenal fatigue. Ambulance wears you down by pummeling your eyes and ears into submission.
Ambulance’s weak script doesn’t offer its superb cast much to work off of. Gyllenhaal, Abdul-Mateen II, and González make the most of the situation, delivering tough, emotional performances that match the film’s manic intensity. The characters feel authentic despite their insane circumstances. You always understand who these people are and what compels them to behave the way they do.
I’m an action movie junkie, and Bay is Hollywood’s maestro of mayhem. It sounds like a perfect match. However, Bay’s bro-y filmmaking style often leaves me queasy. I’m cool with the nonsensical plotlines and chaotic editing. It’s the toxic machismo fuelling it all that eats away at me.
Bay is like that cool uncle you’re always happy to see even though you know he’s going to drink too much and say something terrible by the end of the night.
Bay’s work has always indulged in a “rah-rah” spirit of American exceptionalism that comes off like propaganda. And I’m troubled by the pro-fascist subtext running through his films. And don’t get me started on Bay’s approach to sexuality or the way he uses broad racial stereotypes as narrative shorthand.
With his frat-boy sense of humour and reductive perspective on good and evil, Bay makes movies 13-year old me would kill to see. They’re full of hypersexualized babes, lowbrow jokes, and fortune cookie insights posing as profundity.
I’m not looking for a filmmaker with Bay’s crude instincts to tell a story about the plight of the Black American male in 2022. But ultimately, Ambulance exists to tell that story.
I don’t like referring to movies as guilty pleasures. If a film brings you joy, embrace it, and call it a pleasure. There’s no shame in it. But… I have a complicated relationship with Michael Bay movies. Watching them is like having sex with an ex. It’s fun in the moment, but I walk away from the experience feeling gross and with a little less self-respect.