Michael Bay is one of modern cinema’s great enigmas, in that he’s one of the very best at what he does, but his singular talents and impeccable penchant for crafting pulsating action sequences and practical in-camera mayhem are often wasted on tedious blockbusters with one-note characters, awful scripts, and uninteresting stories.
Make no mistake, Ambulance ticks all of the boxes you’d expect from a Bay blockbuster (for better and worse), but there’s enough about his latest feature to place it comfortably among his upper echelon. It isn’t quite on a par with Bad Boys or The Rock, but it’s a damn sight better than any of his five Transformers flicks, or Netflix’s self-indulgent 6 Underground.
The plot is simple, straightforward, and makes very little sense, so we immediately know we’re on familiar ground from the off. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is decorated war hero and family man Will Sharp, back home and struggling to find the money to pay for his wife’s surgery. He lies to her about having acquired the funding, heads out to meet up with his adoptive brother Danny (as played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who then convinces him in a matter of minutes to join his crew for a $32 million bank heist that starts almost immediately, and we’re off to the races.
Some of the marketing may have painted Ambulance as a heist thriller, but the gung-ho crew are out of the bank by the end of the first act, many of them splattered into mincemeat. The cops and the feds are both on the scene, forcing the Sharp siblings to hijack the titular mode of transport, which also involves them attempting to save the life of a rookie officer that Will had literally just shot twice for trying to apprehend his brother immediately beforehand.
Once Will, Danny, Eiza González’s Cam, and Jackson White’s Officer Zach (yep, that’s his name in the credits) are aboard, things take a rapid detour into pure, unadulterated Bayhem. As soon the thieves and their captors hit the road, we’re treated to almost two hours of vehicular insanity, implausible subplots, occasionally awe-inspiring camerawork, and the requisite sh*t getting blown sky high.
A recurring criticism of Bay’s career is that he’s refused to evolve even the slightest bit since breaking out as the action genre’s newest wunderkind almost three decades ago, but he knows it, with Ambulance revealing a playful level of self-awareness that may as well have someone wink at the camera.
He knows people dunk on his work for repeating the same tricks over and over again in perpetuity, but he’s also savvy enough to accept that audiences would reject him if he didn’t, so he knows exactly what he’s doing when he has two characters discuss The Rock during an early scene of Ambulance, before one of them refers to the pair as “bad boys”.
Ambulance is everything you’d want from the frenetic filmmaker, but he’s added several new tricks to his arsenal in order to add a layer of freshness that’s been missing from his work for some time. Sure, as has been the case for years, the humor is terrible, none of the one-liners land, a farting dog becomes integral to an early set piece, the running time drags on for at least 30 minutes too long, the slow motion grows old very quickly, and there’s a distinct lack of emotion beyond the superficial, but people don’t pay to see Michael Bay movies for the nuance.
Two-thirds of Ambulance is pitched somewhere between Speed and Mad Max: Fury Road, and when the various visual elements are firing on all cylinders, it can be an absolute joy to behold, and even comes mighty close on several combustible occasions to living up to the potential of being the bastard love child born from two unadulterated classics.
Stumbling upon the notion of attaching cameras to high speed drones is inspired, too, because only an auteur with Bay’s unique sensibilities would even consider doing what he does with the technology, opening up the playing field to some truly impressive and even mind-blowing shots as we weave in and out of the action at full pelt.
At points, you’ll scarcely believe that Ambulance is daring to present such wild storyline developments with an entirely straight face in the middle of what’s basically a 90-minute extended set piece, especially when Will and Cam hold a conference call with her surgeon ex-boyfriend and two trauma specialists, so that they can split a dude’s guts open to pull a bullet out of him, only for his spleen to burst right when she’s about to secure it with a hair clasp.
This is a thing that happens, and it’s as insane as it sounds, but you can’t help but admire Bay taking such incomprehensibly detailed swings when he’s immediately smash-cutting to things like a customized lowrider fitted with a Gatling gun mowing decimating a police roadblock, the Sharps engaging in a fistfight from the driver and passengers seats, or a fortuitous blood transfusion at 100 miles per hour.
Will, Danny, and Cam are the only roles that matter in the slightest, though, but Bay deserves at least a little credit for trying to flesh them out a touch, even if they remain broadly archetypal. Mateen does his best to try and add some conflicted complexity to his reluctant accomplice, while Gyllenhaal pitches his performance as increasingly deranged the longer the story continues. Gonzalez would have been given the Megan Fox in Transformers treatment had Ambulance been made a decade ago, but thankfully she’s given a decent amount of screentime without being reduced to window dressing or eye candy.
If you’re not a fan of Bay’s, then Ambulance is going to do absolutely nothing to change your mind. However, if you’ve got a soft spot for ridiculous action movies that take place in a heightened version of something resembling reality, then there’s plenty to enjoy.
With a $40 million budget, Ambulance is Bay’s second-cheapest production since 1995, but he makes the most of the stripped-back aesthetic to prove that he doesn’t need $200 million and an overabundance of CGI to deliver something that’s entirely in keeping with both his back catalogue and reputation.
Based on the evidence displayed from the first minute to last, perhaps the maestro of incendiary entertainment should stick to smaller budgets for the foreseeable future, because the no-frills approach isn’t just signature Bay with a fraction of the budget; it’s comfortably his best movie in years.
It might be way too long and suffer from many familiar problems, but 'Ambulance' still has enough action-packed thrills in the tank to rank as Michael Bay's best movie in years.