Over my [redacted] years of writing about movies, my relationship with the works of Michael Bay has evolved. It’s fair to say I once held hatred in my heart for them. I think I thought BAD BOYS was so-so when it first came to video (have not revisited – should I?) but THE ROCK, ARMAGEDDON and TRANSFORMERS 1 and 2 were some of the top offenders that sent me on a crusade against incomprehensible action back in the day. BAD BOYS 2 at least impressed me with its unprecedented levels of excess and aggression toward humanity, but I was young and full of hot air and worried that all movies were gonna start being hard to look at like that. Although that doesn’t stress me anymore, those movies still don’t appeal to me.
But since then I’ve watched each of Bay’s movies with more of a sense of humor about how unhinged they are, and thankfully his action has become less of a smear. The TRANSFORMERSes kinda blur together in my mind (as on screen), but checking my reviews I see it was the fourth one where he first showed he could do them with clean action. I gave it a rare 4.5 out of 5 ACR (Action Comprehensability Rating)! And I noted in my PAIN & GAIN review that having a mid-sized budget where he had to plan what shots he needed instead of shooting a giant pile of footage and chopping it into salad was a blessing. I would say the same of 13 HOURS. Finally, 6 UNDERGROUND is maybe his most entertaining mix of outlandish stupidity and incredible action spectacle. So I’ve been feeling positive about him.
Therefore, in all sincerity, I was excited for his new bank robber movie AMBULANCE, and I truly thought I was gonna dig it. I never suspected it would be a throwback to the shoot-everything-in-closeup, make-sure-the-camera-is-spinning-or-jiggling-at-all-times, establishing-shots-are-for-cowards Michael Bay of the old days. Although on a character and story level it’s in the top percentile of Bay’s movies, the machine gun edits between sweaty faces, disorienting low angles and dizzying (if sometimes cool) drone swoops forced me pretty early on to give up hope that I’d ever know where the people and vehicles were supposed to be in relationship to each other. It bothered me enough that there was honestly a minute I was thinking, “Should I just write this one off and go home?”
I don’t regret sticking with it, but I don’t blame myself for considering it either. I know how to enjoy a good story with bad action, but this is going for a FURY ROAD thing where 90% of the movie takes place during a chase. In a movie like that if the chase gives you nothing that’s gonna be an issue! Put it this way: why the hell does a movie with the good sense to use a defibrillator as a weapon have the bad sense not to show us clearly what happens to the recipient? We have to hear and sense what happens more than see it. Didn’t this used to be a visual artform?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (AQUAMAN, THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS) stars as Will Sharp, an Afghanistan veteran (we know because he has a book on his table that says “AFGHANISTAN”) who can’t get his insurance to pay for the experimental surgery his wife (Moses Ingram, The Queen’s Gambit) needs to live. He pretends everything is fine and that he’s not going to visit his criminal brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal, PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME) to try to borrow money.
Danny says he doesn’t have the money at the moment because it’s all tied up in a score and by the way we’re leaving to rob a bank in five minutes and we need your help. Turns out their dad was a legendary bank robber and Will has done his best to stay out of that life, but after repeatedly refusing he gives in and finds himself in the truck.
The crew of burly Baybarians includes Devan Chandler Long (Doom Patrol) and Brendan Miller (young Bison from STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN LI) as a pretty funny longhair stoner stereotype who wears Birkenstocks to the robbery. It’s not really clear what the plan is, but it goes south when dorky Officer Zach (Jackson White, THE SPACE BETWEEN) knocks on the door asking why they’re closed and if he can set up a savings account. Pretending to be the bank manager, Danny is unable to get rid of him, lets him in, and soon has to take him hostage.
Nobody has to call the cops, though. Members of the LAPD Special Investigation Section, led by Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, BRAVEN, WIDOWS), were already there waiting for the gang to strike. So Danny and Will lose their escape vehicle and end up hijacking an ambulance, which is convenient since Will accidentally shot Officer Zach and wants to keep him alive. That becomes the job of abducted EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza Gonzalez, BABY DRIVER, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, HOBBS & SHAW, BLOODSHOT, CUTTHROAT CITY, GODZILLA VS. KONG) while Danny tries to evade police vehicles and arrange a deal with an old cartel associate called Papi (A Martinez, WALKING THE EDGE, CURSE OF CHUCKY) to help them create a distraction.
The script is credited to Chris Fedak (creator of the TV show Chuck), based on the 2005 Danish film AMUBLANCEN, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. The vehicle action in the original is much smaller and less destructive, but I found it way more tense, because you can see the whole vehicles, where they are in relationship to each other, and what’s ahead of them. Basic things like that. The remake is nearly an hour longer than the original, which is okay – Bay is obviously not going for the same simplicity. The original begins as they’re fleeing the bank (we don’t even see inside), doesn’t tell us about who’s chasing them, and doesn’t have any accomplices for them to meet up with. It’s just a character piece between the two brothers and the EMT. (There’s no cop hostage, just a dying guy who was already in the ambulance, who is not conscious.) And the money is for surgery for their mother, not a wife – in the original, the nice brother and the EMT fall for each other, and I’m glad that’s absent here.
Having seen the original I was able to understand the origins of an otherwise puzzling detail in Bay’s movie. Danny gets Papi’s men to steal a bunch of ambulances to drive around as decoys (see also: 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS), and at the same time has his employee Castro (Wale) meet them with a spray gun to paint theirs a different color. But isn’t the idea to blend in with the other vehicles? It doesn’t seem to serve a purpose for their plan or the narrative to make theirs stick out. I don’t get it, but I know it comes from the original’s scene where while the nicer brother is helping with a medical procedure the meaner brother tries to disguise the vehicle by slopping paint all over it. It’s a terrible decision there too but it’s treated as an act of stupid desperation. Here it seems like it’s supposed to be an ingenious plan.
The remake also has the EMT and nice brother performing an emergency procedure that she’s not trained for by communicating with surgeons, and one-ups it but doing it while they’re on the move. Bay actually just did a surgery-during-high-speed-chase scene in 6 UNDERGROUND, and that one was in the middle of a shootout, too! This version has the advantage of being kinda thematic, because this guy who can’t get help from the health care system is Zooming with top doctors to do DIY surgery, but that might be more meaningful if it was his out-of-luck wife and not a cop who could get real medical care if he’d bring him to a hospital.
I do appreciate the extremeness of Cam having to reach deep into Officer Zach’s guts and lift up his spleen (very graphically), and the extra kicker that he wakes up in the middle of this. And then she has to use her hairclip to close an artery! That’s great, though followed by the ludicrousness of her immediately declaring that it worked and then everything being fine. Nobody’s concerned they might, like, go over a bump and pop him open. He’s just fixed now.
Fortunately the cast is good enough to smooth some of this dumb stuff over. Gonzalez is the heart of the movie, and her introduction comforting a little girl impaled in a car accident is harrowing and emotional. Abdul-Mateen has had more complex roles including in Watchmen and CANDYMAN, but he does solid leading man work here and makes you root for a guy who robbed a bank and shot a hostage. Dillahunt is as fun as usual, even making some cornball forced quirk (he has a huge dog! but he puts him in a tiny car!) kind of cute. And unsurprisingly Gyllenhaal is the highlight, having a blast modulating between Eric Dane style smartass villainy and he’s-an-asshole-but-he’s-my-brother-so-I-love-him relationship drama. I think the story flips way too quickly between using the brotherly bond for a triumphant moment and Will realizing that his brother has gone beyond the point of no return, but it still kind of works.
As much as Bay’s disdain for action clarity always bothered me, his sense of humor is actually a bigger problem. It’s not as much the jokes being terrible as just the complete lack of tonal discipline (with 13 HOURS being a rare exception). If he’s trying to develop some dramatic tension it’s not gonna stop him from randomly injecting wacky stereotypes yelling, riffing and mugging. So I’m happy to report that there are only a couple really shameful ones in AMBULANCE. #1 is when they’re going up an elevator to rob the bank and – get this! – an angry, muttering Asian lady blocks the door with her cane and gets on with them! Can you believe it!? Come on, lady! #2 is the introduction of FBI Agent Anson Clark (Keir O’Donnell, AMERICAN SNIPER) in a comical sketch based on the premise “Wouldn’t it be funny if gay guys had marriage counseling?” They’re all bickering and everything! I mean, these same sex husbands they got now are as bad as wives, am I right?
Then for a bit he’s the typical uptight bureaucrat Bay hates, butting heads with other cops who question his cop cred – thankfully for being from Toledo instead of for the other thing. Letting it go after that does count as enlightenment on the Michael Bay scale, but the man is 57 years old and the year is 2022, I’m not gonna give him a trophy for that. Anyway, it was interesting to look up the actor and realize that he’s the guy who played a much more backwards gay stereotype in the at-the-time-hugely-popular 2005 comedy WEDDING CRASHERS.
The rest of the time it’s pretty well behaved and has a few laughs and even gets kinda meta with a couple explicit references to previous Michael Bay movies. Officer Zach’s partner Officer Mark (Cedric Sanders, THE SOCIAL NETWORK) mentions BAD BOYS and THE ROCK (both the movie and the actor who co-starred in PAIN & GAIN). It might be too charitable to consider it self-critique on Bay’s part, but Mark quoting one of THE ROCK’s douchiest lines – “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen” – ruins everyone’s day and ends many lives. If that horseshit hadn’t convinced Zach to go into the bank to ask out a teller (Kayli Tran) then the crew would’ve left without hostages and maybe been apprehended without tearing up the city.
(Jesus christ – they really made 66-year-old Sean Connery spout that macho dickhead philosophy in American high school terms, and it was supposed to be cool! And people thought it was!)
One self-reference that might’ve improved the movie would be if Will and Danny’s nostalgic childhood flashbacks were about playing cops and robbers quoting BAD BOYS. I think that would be better than what they did do, which was to show them playing in full cowboy costumes. I guess their dad is not only robbing banks but making them watch Roy Rogers movies in the mid-‘90s.
I mentioned that Dillahunt’s character Captain Monroe is from the S.I.S., an infamous anti-robbery unit of the LAPD that I read about when I reviewed the quite good Mark L. Lester film EXTREME JUSTICE starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Scott Glenn. The unit’s trademark in real life is loading dozens of bullets into the backs of dudes who rob gas stations or McDonalds with BB guns, having the city pay off their multi-million dollar lawsuits and then declaring what they did justified and continuing to do the same shit again and again. In AMBULANCE, Monroe claims that “the new SIS” wait to apprehend people after a robbery because it’s safer than confronting them inside, but in reality they were controversial for doing just that – knowing that a robbery was going down and letting it happen because they loved to block their cars in and have huge, deadly gun battles.
Though Bay doesn’t make the cops as bastardly as EXTREME JUSTICE did, or as idiotic as DIE HARD did, it doesn’t fluff them up too much either. They’re not great at their jobs and you don’t feel real bad for most of them getting in the middle of this. They’re obstacles to Will getting through this alive and/or getting the money to his wife. And in the end you hate the motherfuckers for the very true-to-life choice to stand around while Will bleeds out instead of getting him medical help now that he’s in custody. Hats off to Bay for recognizing this time that bad boys are assholes.
My friends at the Action For Everyone podcast loved this one and give Bay lots of credit that I wouldn’t for alleged anti-capitalism themes in the script. I suspect his soul was not yearning to shout a message to the heavens, because I read that he turned this down years ago and then changed his mind because “Goddamnit, I just want to get out and shoot something fast. I’m tired of being locked up at home.”
But that doesn’t matter. If you see it in the movie it’s in the movie. I wanted to bring up their episode because I really loved something Vyce Victus pointed out (whether or not I buy that it’s a point Bay is trying to make): while Will falls into desperation because our health care system sucks, we see all around him the billions that have been spent on police, armor, guns, ammo, trucks, “helos,” surveillance equipment, etc. So there is some truth in AMBULANCE. It’s just you gotta squint real hard to see it because the camera’s jostling around and tilted at a weird angle so you can’t figure out what the fuck it is you’re supposed to be looking at.