Michael Bay has a distinct flavor. A flavor that I would argue is fully capable of being just as distinct as, say, Wes Anderson, Lars Von Trier, Tim Burton, or Christopher Nolan. If you take a little trip through his filmography, you find yourself in familiar territory. The Transformer films sit atop the stack, beneath them a solid foundation of The Rock, Armageddon, Bad Boys, and Bad Boys II, and one of my personal favorites, The Island. If this isn’t an illustration of a director’s proclivities, I don’t know what is. Michael Bay is an action auteur, forging his style in the fires of massive pyrotechnic stunts, showering his films in sparks and stone-brittle debris. They are always a spectacle, from first moment to last. Beyond his specific process for filming action, which may be lost on more casual viewers, he has a signature that you can find in every film he makes. A low angle, tight zoom, structured background, bleeding fast arc shot. Even if you don’t know what those words mean, you’ve seen it. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence climbing out of the car as the camera flies around them in Bad Boys II. It’s visual candy, and while others try to imitate, only Michael Bay can pull it off perfectly. Ambulance, Bay’s newest entry to the action echelon, is a culmination of his thirty years of filmmaking.
Set in LA, as premised by the highlighted letters in AmbuLAnce, this film focuses on adoptive brothers Will and Danny Sharp, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal respectively. Will, an Army vet and family man, is introduced on the phone, struggling to get insurance from the VA to come through for his wife. It’s quick and effective enough a set-up. Will hangs up the phone, having failed, and tells his wife that he got the money. The obvious dramatic irony sets up the introduction of his brother Danny, whom Will’s wife says he doesn’t need to interact with. Without telling his wife, Will makes his way to Danny’s garage and finds himself in the first stage of a $32 million dollar bank heist. Bay flexes his spiraling camera to capture the heated exchange between Will and Danny as, inevitably, Will is roped into the plan, desperate to support his family.
From there, the movie is content with taking its core conceit and running with it. The job goes sideways, the duo are forced to flee, they hijack an ambulance with a wounded cop in it, and you get to see how that horrendously bad situation plays out. One of my favorite things about Michael Bay is his willingness to let viewers focus in one place. There isn’t much going on in this movie outside of this ambulance chase, transitioning between action sequences and the structural equivalent of a bottle episode. At least sixty percent of the film takes place in the ambulance. Outside of the ambulance we’re introduced to the law enforcement seeking to bring them down, sure, but they barely make a B-plot in the film, largely just serving as the film’s means of preparing you for the next action set piece. There are perfectly serviceable performances from Garret Dillahunt, Keri O’Donnell, Olivia Stambouliah and a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin look-alike that I later discovered to be Steve Austin’s half-brother Jamie McBride. But Ambulance makes it completely clear that this story is about Danny, Will, and hostage EMT Camille “Cam” Thompson. Cam, played convincingly by Eliza Gonzalez, serves as our inside woman as the events of the film play out. She’s the sympathetic observer who helps us understand the broken and stressed dynamic between our brothers-on-the-run.
At some point in 2020, while the world was locked away in their homes, a video surfaced of a drone pilot expertly flying his craft through a bowling alley. The drone traces the lanes, ducks into the back of house, skims the heads of dining patrons, dumps out the back door, and spirals once more through the entrance. It’s a masterful bit of RC flying and caught the attention of more than a few Hollywood elite. James Gunn famously asked for a way to contact the pilot so he could give him a job on the set of Suicide Squad. It is abundantly clear that Michael Bay also saw this footage and had a similar thought. But where Gunn only used a few drone shots in Suicide Squad, drone shots are fundamental to the creative expression of Ambulance. There can be no fewer than a hundred drone shots sprinkled into this film. Inside the bank, over the top of the chase. At one point a drone flies underneath an airborne police car. If asked whether the use of drones is in excess or not, I might have told you that it was, had this film not been made by Michael Bay. But when one sits down to one of Bay’s movies, you expect nothing short of his patented “Bayhem.” Drones kick that game up a notch, and it rules.
Because so much of Ambulance takes place inside theambulance itself, the excess budget could be put towards other things. Again, as Bay is an expert at this point, those savings were made obvious by the incredible amount of destruction this movie pours onto the streets of LA. Dozens of cars absolutely trashed, hundreds of pounds of pyrotechnic explosives, enough prop ammunition to wage a Civil War reenactment, and the budget to crash a few dozen drones carrying 4k lenses. Also, notably, the credits were startlingly short, including very few visual effects personnel, so what you are seeing on screen is actually happening. The Lord of Action is back, and he is having a blast. Pun intended.
Ambulance is a film that ensures you understand its purpose. It’s blockbuster spectacular at its rip-roaring best. Are there actors? Sure. But more importantly, was that car flipping onto a highway barricade cool? Yes! I’ve always wondered what it must be like to perform in a Michael Bay film. It’s not that the acting is unimportant, it’s just so obviously second fiddle to the action. Gyllenhaal, Abdul-Mateen II, and Gonzalez deliver pulse-pounding performances, but let’s be honest, it’s Michael Bay. You’re here for the action. And for a movie named for an otherwise unexplosive vehicle, Ambulance will blow you, and millions of dollars of material, away. Excuse me grinning like a child in the center row. This is my junk food, and it should be yours too. | Caleb Sawyer