There is a specific moment in Michael Bay’s Ambulance where the whole thing clicked for me. In the midst of a high speed chase on a Los Angeles freeway, a police officer (Jackson White) profusely bleeds out in the back of the titular vehicle, and EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza Gonzalez) is forced to perform amateur surgery while getting instructions from a video call with her surgeon ex-boyfriend (Andy Favreau) and a pair of his colleagues… who are consulting while standing together on a golf course. Hands dig deep in a chest cavity, organs are manipulated, and unconventional items are used as surgical tools.
It’s madness, and such a peak level of madness that it renders the entire experience in a new light. The mold for Ambulance is a high concept thriller, but Bay orchestrates it all with such messy, hyper-self-aware and constant intensity that it ultimately plays like a gory and profanity-laden roller coaster – one that gets you to throw your hands in the air and scream along with all the characters. So when Jake Gyllenhaal’s Danny is screaming about plastic flamingos, or a remote-controlled low-rider is being tricked out with minigun, all you can really do is marvel at it, jaw agape.
Based on Laurits Munch-Petersen’s 2005 Danish thriller of the same name, with a script by Chris Fedak that remained relatively fluid during production, Ambulance packs all of its action into a single day, and begins chronicling the stressful morning of Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Will is a decorated veteran, but his wife, Amy (Moses Ingram), is sick, and his insurance won’t cover the $231,000 surgery that will save her life. Desperate to take care of her and their newborn son, he lies to Amy and says that he is going to go out for a job interview, but in truth he is secretly reaching out to his estranged, criminal brother, Danny.
Will wants a loan, but what Danny offers instead is a job and a share of $32 million payday. The plan is to pull off one of the biggest bank heists in Los Angeles history along with a crew of three other guys (Devan Chandler Long, Brendan Miller, Victor Gojcaj), and the metaphorical train is ready to leave the station. With no other options at his disposal, Will joins the robbery.
Everything starts out well, but the plan goes to hell thanks to the surprise arrival of a pair of cops, Officer Zach (Jackson White) and Officer Mark (Cedric Sanders) – who are only at the bank because the former is trying to get up the nerve to ask out a teller (Kayli Tran). Bullets start to fly as a Special Investigation Section undercover operation springs into action, but Danny and Will split off from their colleagues with Zach as a hostage. When Zach is shot, they end up hijacking an ambulance with Cam Thompson aboard, and they race around the city trying to figure out an exit strategy and also keep the dying police officer alive.
Michael Bay goes all out with Ambulance, but does so with a wink.
While my appreciation of what Ambulance pulls off didn’t materialize until around the mid-point of my screening (the aforementioned surgery scene), the reality is that the movie is bonkers all the way through – you just have to find yourself on its wavelength. It starts dramatically edging on mawkish, with shots of Will’s military commendations bluntly contrasting his anxious call with an insurance agent and the piercing sound of a crying baby. This is followed by an earnestly emotional introduction to Cam, whom we watch help a girl who has been impaled by an iron fence post in a car accident, but the film really starts finding its tone with the introduction of Danny.
Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the industry’s most gifted actors, and while he can excel even when the material is subtle and nuanced, Ambulance calls for some spectacular, Nicolas Cage-level scene chewing, and he is gleefully up for the task. At one moment he is the most charming, charismatic man in the room, and then a switch flips and his neck veins looks ready to burst as he bursts with rage; at all times he is captivating, and gets to deliver insane lines of dialogue like the retort, “I wish I didn’t have herpes, but we live with what we’ve got.”
Once the principal characters are all aboard the eponymous emergency vehicle, the gas pedal gets nailed to the floor, and not only does that mean the traditional Bayhem (counting the number of destroyed vehicles would be an impossible challenge in this near-constant chase), but things just get bizarre. This is a thriller where the SIS Captain in charge of the operation (Garret Dillahunt) – who is fully decked out in University of Southern California gear – calls off a pursuit because he discovers that his monstrous pet English Mastiff, Nitro, is in the back seat of the police car being driven by Officer Mark.
Ambulance runs longer than it should, but still provides a big, satisfying finish.
Moviegoers familiar with the work of Michael Bay will not be surprised to learn that the film is a skosh overindulgent. Entertaining as the ride may be, the combination of the intimate intensity inside the ambulance and the chaos going on outside of it is a lot to take in, and this is a feature that sports a 136 minute runtime. The climax delivers the high-intensity punch it intends, and it ends up finding satisfying conclusions to the dynamics between the characters, but between all of the crazy stunts, flying bullets, booming explosions, and swooping drone shots, it’s an experience that leaves you feel drained as the end credits begin.
That exhaustion is really part of the filmmaking school of Michael Bay, along with plotting that doesn’t wholly make sense when put under scrutiny, but Ambulance succeeds because it is one of the director’s most “knowing” movies. There isn’t any slick pretension that tries to make you think you’re watching an overtly serious crime thriller a la Michael Mann’s Heat. In the Bay tradition, this film is glossy, loud, and overbearing, and delivered with a wink, it’s one of his best works to date.