It was supposed to be a simple heist.
Ex-marine Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) needs money for his wife Amy’s (Moses Ingram) medical expenses, having been hung out to dry by Veteran Affairs. Luckily, his brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a career criminal about to pull off a 32-million-dollar bank robbery, and there’s always room in the crew for family. Things go horribly wrong, and the pair wind up in a stolen ambulance with EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza González), wounded and likely dying cop Zach (Jackson White), and what seems to be the entire LAPD on their tail, under the command of the determined Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt). They gotta get away, and they gotta keep Zach alive, as he’s the only thing stopping Monroe from unleashing hell on them. And we are off to the races …
Ambulance is a remake of the 2005 Danish film of the same name by Laurits Munch-Petersen and Lars Andreas Pedersen, but the real backstory here involves director Michael Bay getting antsy when the Covid pandemic put the kibosh on a planned film and wanting to do something smaller and more intimate that he could do on location with minimal cast and crew. Ambulance, with all its explosions, gunfire, and the inclusion of a low rider with a minigun mounted on the passenger seat, is apparently what passes for “smaller and more intimate” in Bay’s mind. This is his character drama — his My Dinner with Andre (1981). It just involves Jake and Yahya firing machine guns and ruminating on the bro code a lot while being stuck inside a moving vehicle for much of the running time.
Which may sound like I’m bagging the film out, which couldn’t be further from the truth — Ambulance is precisely what I want from a popcorn actioner. The stakes are real, the writing (by Chris Fedak) is tight and functional, the performances are perfectly pitched at just the right note of histrionic, and the action …
… well, the action is simply fantastic. Next level. If I hadn’t clocked RRR (2022) and Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) in the past couple of weeks, Ambulance would be the action movie to beat in 2022, and even now, I’m not sure it ain’t. A lot of people don’t like Michael Bay for a lot of reasons and pretty justifiable ones, but anyone who doesn’t think he’s a superb visual stylist and action filmmaker is spitting lies. He’s an auteur, as I’ve noted before, and here he’s doing some of his best work in ages.
Ambulance’s relatively limited budget — a reported $40 million — and the circumstances of its production seem to have galvanized Bay, freed him up, and really let him cut loose. I wouldn’t say it’s a film for the ages, or some profound meditation on the human condition, but watching is like when you hear a great guitarist fang out an effortless, improvised riff — you hear the notes come together in a crazy little skein of sound and part of you recognizes that this little shoot-from-the-hip moment is the result of decades of practice and performance, discipline distilled into muscle memory to produce an effect that feels like an act of straight-up sorcery. The whole film feels like that. Every shot and cut, every big action beat. Every swirling drone shot.
There are an awful lot of swirling drone shots.
Often drones are just used as a cheap alternative to helicopter shots — a way for filmmakers to add production value in the form of uninspired establishing shots of landscape. Here, they’re used so Bay doesn’t literally kill his camera operators. We swoop under an exploding car, through yellow bursts of gunfire, up and around and over the action, veering in jaw-droppingly close for a highlight here, peeling out and away there to establish geography, always moving, frenetic but focused.
Now, we can more or less do all this stuff with CGI at this point, but there’s something to be said about the tactility and granularity of actual cameras filming actual people and vehicles on actual streets, even if they’re being remote piloted by a couple of guys in VR headsets. The verisimilitude jumps right up, and we’re buying into these characters and this situation much more readily. Formally, this is incredible stuff, and I fully expect other action filmmakers to pick up what Bay is putting down here in the coming years.
This is also one of Bay’s most empathetic films, and I’m not saying that lightly. I had Bay pegged as a complete misanthrope, and a lot of his body of work supports that theory, but a few recent offerings have shown that he’s mellowed considerably.
Here he’s genuinely fond of his characters, and while they fall into recognizable archetypes — Gyllenhaal is the manic madman, Abdul-Mateen, the stoic, decent pro, González the burned-out grunt who’s seen too many casualties on her watch — their interplay rings true — or at least true within the film’s heightened reality. Bay is in their corner; he’s always been fond of professionals who perform their function in a way not too dissimilar to Michael Mann in intent, if not execution, but what shines through here is his empathy for people who have been done wrong by the powers that be. The basic narrative engine that drives Ambulance is that the government won’t cough up to keep a veteran’s wife alive, but they sure as shooting will expend millions in resources and property damage, plus a lot of lives, to run Abdul-Mateen’s Will to ground when he makes his desperate play.
For action fans, this is the good stuff. Bay is at the top of his game here; thanks to his regrettable tenure on the Transformers franchise, he’s easy to dismiss as all hat and no cattle, but it’s worth putting those preconceptions aside and actually looking at what he’s doing here. This is a great action movie from one of the masters of the form: propulsive, inventive, explosive, excellent. It probably won’t make any new converts, but in a just world, it would. What a riff.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson