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One does not hire Michael Bay for subtle adult drama. The blockbuster producer/director of the “Transformers” and “Bad Boys” franchises does have a distinctive style—it’s just that all of his authorial signatures involve massive explosions and dizzying drone shots. And Bay’s latest, “Ambulance,” is a thick, juicy, hilariously overwrought, gloriously stupid steak upon which the vulgar auteurists of the world can feast.
“Ambulance” is a remake of the 2005 Danish film “Ambulancen,” with a few key differences. Both are about brothers who turn to bank robbery to pay for a relative’s medical bills. But here, the recipient is changed from a dying mother to a sick wife, juicing the conflict between career criminal Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his adopted sibling, struggling veteran Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Bay’s world is one of good guys with principles and bad guys without, even when those principles cease to make any logical sense. But it’s not about making sense. It's about big, thunderous emotions.
In both films, the ensuing heist goes horribly wrong, forcing the duo to hijack an ambulance as a combination getaway vehicle/camouflage so they can escape the police cruisers and SWAT vehicles and surveillance trucks surrounding the bank. But in Bay’s version, the poor sap dying in the back of the stolen ambulance isn’t an everyday heart patient, but a wounded cop. (What, you didn’t think badge worship would factor into this story?) And while “Ambulancen” runs a tight 80 minutes, “Ambulance” stretches its legs at a leisurely 136.
That’s not to imply that there’s anything relaxing about watching “Ambulance.” The film opens on an emotionally manipulative register, panning over medical bills and pill bottles bathed in the same golden light that surrounds Will’s saintly wife Amy (Moses Ingram) as she cradles their newborn child. Amy’s cancer diagnosis has pushed the couple’s finances to their limit. And so Will reluctantly reconnects with his flashy, glib brother, with the intent of borrowing money to pay for Amy’s upcoming surgery. But Danny—who Gyllenhaal plays like the character has Red Bull and cocaine for breakfast every morning—offers him one better: Rather than a few hundred thousand dollars to appease the insurance companies, how about a payday of $8 million?
That’s the botched robbery mentioned above, which plays out like “Heat” on steroids following the introduction of the film’s third lead, Cam Thompson (Eiza González). In typical action-movie character style, Cam is the best damn EMT the city of Los Angeles has ever seen—able, as she puts it, “to keep anyone alive for 20 minutes.” She’s also (surprise, surprise) cynical and hardened, snapping at her newest partner that it’s just a job and she doesn’t care what happens to the little girl she just rescued from a bloody car crash where the child was impaled on a piece of wrought-iron fencing.
Will Cam’s hostage experience—she’s the EMT in Danny and Will’s stolen ambulance, if you haven’t yet put that together—reignite her passion for saving lives? Who’s to say? What can be said is that once the ambulance takes off on a “Speed”-esque chase through the streets of a curiously traffic-free Los Angeles, the stakes escalate until Cam is wrist-deep in the cop’s open chest cavity, performing a life-saving procedure with the help of two trauma surgeons who FaceTime in from a golf course. Blood is spurting from the cop’s wound in squishy geysers. Danny is behind the wheel, mowing down traffic cones and speeding the wrong way up highway overpasses at 60 mph. Will is attached to the body on the stretcher, serving as a human blood bag like in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” An FBI hostage negotiator is on the phone, demanding to know what the hell is going on. Everyone is screaming. And then Cam’s laptop goes dead. She’s got to finish this surgery on her own—and the cop’s spleen just burst.
In short, “Ambulance” is all peak and no valley, a breathless roller coaster ride that’s made all the more discombobulating by Bay’s hyper-kinetic shooting style. In early dialogue scenes, the camera pivots around the characters in dramatic low-angle shots. And once the action gets going, the combination of volatile drone photography—one of Bay and cinematographer Roberto De Angelis’ favorites is to zip up the side of a DTLA skyscraper, then plunge back towards the concrete with nauseating speed—and frenetic editing makes it difficult to tell at times who’s chasing whom and in what direction. And the flaming cop cars flying in all directions, including directly towards the camera, don’t help the legibility issue.
The thing about roller coasters is, though, that they’re a lot of fun. And if you surrender to the chaos and allow your brain cells to scatter like so much fruit sent whizzing through the air as the titular vehicle crashes through an LA street market, “Ambulance” is a blast—a disorienting, overly long blast, but a blast nonetheless. Bay seems to be having fun, too: he stuffs the film with as many comic relief moments as he does everything else, casts his own dog in an absurd cameo role, and allows multiple references to earlier Bay films from screenwriter Chris Fedak to make it onto the screen intact. The movie looks like it cost more than its $40 million budget, thanks to the sheer volume of flaming destruction on screen. And as far as Bay’s concerned, that means he held up his end of the bargain.
Now playing in theaters.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Danny Sharp
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Will Sharp
Eiza González as Cam Thompson
Garret Dillahunt as Captain Monroe
Keir O'Donnell as FBI Agent Anson Clark
Moses Ingram as Amy Sharp
A Martinez as Papi