“People still rob banks?” someone asks about halfway through Michael Bay’s heist-gone-wrong/car-chase thriller Ambulance. She might as well have asked, “People still make movies about people robbing banks?” Or, more to the point, “People still make movies like this about people robbing banks?” It’s a rare self-aware moment in an otherwise very un-self-conscious throwback: an action movie that could be straight out of the mid-’90s, but that most definitely is not being clever about it.
Ambulance belongs to a specific breed of action film that has been chased out of theaters over the last couple of decades by the fantastical, digital franchise blockbuster. It’s a one-shot idea that sets off a practical spectacle of car crashes, gun battles, stunts, and sweaty acting, orchestrated by a deranged ringmaster of a director who will stop at nothing to get the shot he has in mind. It’s stupid, exciting, unruly (with a 136-minute run time), and strangely refreshing.
The really strange thing is that this shock to the system for old-school action filmmaking comes from Bay, who has been a bête noir for film critics and cinephiles for the best part of two decades. This is the director whose taste for frenetic cutting and camerawork turned action movies into barely legible visual assaults. This is the director whose five increasingly dire Transformers films represent the nadir of the Hollywood intellectual property strip-mine. This is the director who, until now, had only managed a single “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, for his 1996 prison caper The Rock. Funny kind of savior.
Ambulance doesn’t register as an actual departure for Bay, although it is modest by his standards, with a $40 million budget and a down-to-earth setting on the streets of Los Angeles. Based on the 2005 Danish film Ambulancen, Ambulance follows adoptive brothers Danny and Will Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Danny is a bank robber, following in the footsteps of their notorious father, while Will is a combat veteran who left the criminal life behind. Will’s wife Amy (Moses Ingram) needs expensive surgery, which insurance won’t pay for; in desperation, Will appeals to Danny, who draws him into a big score: an armed raid on a federal bank. The heist goes wrong, rookie cop Zach (Jackson White) gets shot, and as Will and Danny look for an escape route, they hijack the ambulance carrying the injured cop and the paramedic treating him, Cam Thompson (Eiza González). The hostages give the brothers a level of protection from the pursuing forces of the LAPD, but also complicate things for them — especially for Will and his conscience — as an escalating chase roars across the city.
It’s an effective premise which sets up both the outward action of the chase and the pressure-cooker drama inside the ambulance. Bay is also completely unafraid to exploit and echo two iconic L.A. thrillers of the ’90s, Heat and Speed. He borrows extensively from the imagery of both films: Heat in a ferocious, shatteringly loud downtown firefight between cops and robbers outside the bank; Speed in all the aerial and zoom shots of a municipal vehicle being chased around the freeway system by a battalion of police cruisers and choppers that have to keep a wary distance. Does Bay also stage slow-motion footage of the ambulance plowing through standing water along the concrete bed of the Los Angeles River, Terminator 2-style? Of course he does.
Ambulance’s greatest strength is how quickly it builds tension. The plot and main characters are set up with brisk efficiency to get us to the action as quickly as possible, and the pace and pressure pile on steadily from there. The film’s structure has an inherent momentum that Bay supercharges with his relentless filmmaking energy. The middle third of the film, as the first stage of the chase and the tensions inside the ambulance reach a simultaneous climax, is truly breathless stuff. But it’s simply not possible to sustain that level of excitement over such a long running time, and the air goes out of the movie toward the end, especially after some overdeveloped plot mechanics require the ambulance to stop and start again more than once. Bay and screenwriter Chris Fedak didn’t learn Speed’s lesson: never, ever stop rolling.
It’s a minor mystery what actors as talented as Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen are doing in this film. Not because it’s beneath them, but because Bay, a director with an overbearing style and an itchy trigger finger in the edit suite, rarely sees actors as anything more than moving elements in the frame, and he’s unlikely to give them much room to do their work. Abdul-Mateen, an actor of tremendous physical and emotional gravitas, looks slightly, stoically lost, like he’s struggling to keep up with the film’s gonzo energy — although he does have good sympathetic chemistry with González. Gyllenhaal, who has few inhibitions and an instinct for pulpy intensity, finds the film’s level with ease, however. To his credit, Danny remains an unpredictable and morally ambiguous character, as well as an entertainingly unhinged one, for longer than the film’s simple schema should allow.
But the main character in Ambulance is really Michael Bay, who, even in a comparatively grounded piece like this, attacks every single moment in his urgent, maximalist style. That style — often known as “Bayhem,” and analyzed in an excellent Every Frame a Painting video essay — is much derided for its incessant camera movement; its disorienting, rapid cuts; and its lack of nuance. It should not be mistaken for incompetence or incoherence, however: It’s a deliberate stylistic choice, implemented with tremendous technical skill.
There’s no denying that Ambulance is a dizzying assembly of footage that’s twice as impressive for being (mostly) in-camera, practical effects and stunts. The shotmaking can be breathtakingly audacious, and it comes in a delirious barrage, driven by Lorne Balfe’s pounding score. Drone cameras plunge down the sides of buildings, wheel through mazes of pillars at speed, and glide underneath leaping cars. Shots other filmmakers would linger on with pride, Bay gives one or two seconds before lining up five more. The excess is sinful, the storytelling is garbled, the effect is overpowering (especially in a theater). It made me laugh, half in mockery, half in elation.
Nothing is too much for Bay. That is why Ambulance eventually flags under its own overindulgence. That is why what should be a lean and efficient thriller has a surprisingly huge and complex cast of supporting characters. (Garret Dillahunt, approachably macho, stands out as the captain of the crack LAPD squad.) That is why there’s a ludicrous subplot involving a gangster cartel and a radio-controlled minigun, and a scene of improvised surgery using a mobile phone, a hair clip, and a face-punch for anesthesia. But it’s also what makes it a thrill, and a kind of luxury, to watch Bay take Bayhem out of the CGI workstation and back out onto the streets. Out there, his technical ingenuity can shine, and his proud tastelessness starts to look like a kind of retro cool.
Ambulance is in theaters now.