Review: In Michael Bay’s “Ambulance”, a gonzo LA romp

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Of all the many things that go fast in Michael Bay’s retro action thriller “Ambulance” – the speeding EMS van, the army of police cars following it, the ever-moving, whistling camera of Bay – nothing happens in blur more than exposure.

Here’s Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), a former Marine, on a frustrating phone call trying to get insurance approval for the surgery that saved his wife’s life. He’s not going anywhere so, with a kiss for his wife (Moses Ingram) and infant son, Will rushes across town – this is Los Angeles – to meet his brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal). They haven’t seen each other in some time, but brief flashbacks to their childhood suggest a deep bond. Will tells him he needs the money. Danny says he has a job, but Will should come with him now, right now, to steal $32 million from a federal bank. Are you in? Are you okay?

Will goes from music on hold to heist in less than an hour – roughly the first five minutes of Bay’s 136-minute film – and “Ambulance” doesn’t slow down from there. The robbery doesn’t go according to its hasty, haphazard plan and, like in Michael Mann’s “Heat,” a bank job gone bad spills onto the streets of downtown Los Angeles. In the melee, Danny and Will race through the sprawling building and its underground parking lot with a cop (Jackson White) held hostage. In a struggle, Will reluctantly shoots him. Seemingly locked in with police cars driving down all around, they sneak in robbing the ambulance that has just picked up the same cop. With a steely and highly professional paramedic (Eiza González) on her back tending to her injuries, the brothers flee through Los Angeles on a day-long chase.

In the sirens of “Ambulance” you can probably already hear the echoes of other films. “Speed” and “Die Hard” are just steps away from Bay’s film, which hits theaters Friday, as do some of the director’s films. “Bad Boys” and “The Rock” both receive callbacks early on. It’s a bit like the spirit of the 90s movie resurrected. Bring back the propulsive excesses of yesteryear!

So does that make Ambulance a retread of a familiar – and some would say happily increasingly obsolete – hyper-masculine mode of cinema? Or have we reached the point – amid more cautious, IP-run blockbusters – of nostalgia for implausibly scripted, testosterone-fueled action extravaganzas with the sound cranked up?

Well, both are somewhat true. “Ambulance” aspires to a visceral, violent style of film that doesn’t take long to ask too many questions. And while Bay’s film doesn’t stand up to too much investigation — it’s a movie where a ruptured spleen is treated with a hairpin — it’s hard to deny its escapist panache. It has engrossing, gonzo glory – Bay knows how far-fetched this kind of film should be – and it’s punctuated by an abiding fondness (and plenty of drone shots) for Los Angeles. Criss-crossed by highways and the city’s art deco architecture, it’s Bay’s “La La Land,” just with explosions instead of song-and-dance routines.

For Bay, and maybe only Bay, “Ambulance” is a relatively small and contained film. Next to movies like “Armageddon” and the “Transformers” movies, “Ambulance” was made for a surprisingly modest $40 million. The downside is that the director, as if nervous that the film lacks scale, can’t help but sweep his camera every moment. All of his showy, aggressive exacerbation of the drama has the opposite effect of never allowing tension to set in. With another filmmaker, there could have been a lighter, less hyperactive B-movie version of “Ambulance.” (Scripted by Chris Fedak, “Ambulance” was actually adapted from another, shorter film: the 2005 Danish film of the same name by Laurits Munch-Petersen.)

Bay, eager to shoot during the pandemic, directed “Ambulance” early last year, and I think the film’s kinetic energy owes something to that apparent impulse to get out there, drive cars real fast, and make a movie. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the film is how empty the streets of Los Angeles are of traffic. But for a film so full of stunts, it feels improvised – in a good way and a bad way.

On the one hand, I don’t think they ever quite understood the character of Abdul-Mateen. How we’re meant to feel about the brothers as anti-heroes is also a little confusing considering how many people their spree seems to kill or maim. Still, there are clever games with morality. When the injured cop in the ambulance falls into critical condition, Will donates blood as the chase continues. If you were so inclined, you might even say that good and bad mix.

The freewheeling nature of the film also gives some of the performers room to play. And a lot of the supporting players are pretty good, especially Garret Dillahunt as a police captain leading the manhunt with one eye always on his dog, Nitro. González (who is quickly amassing a very automotive filmography with “Baby Driver” and the “Fast and Furious” spin-off “Hobbs and Shaw”) keeps the old “Ambulance” grounded. But more than anyone, Gyllenhaal, as a jolly, almost unhinged thief in a cashmere turtleneck, is having a good time. He is the maniac engine driving “Ambulance”.

“Ambulance,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for its intense violence, gory imagery and language. Duration: 136 minutes. Two and a half out of four stars.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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