The camera soars overhead as a group of men, each carrying a rifle and a duffle bag filled with $8 million in cash, begin making their way out of a bank. Police helicopters aren’t roaming the skies yet, but they will be soon. Sweeping camera movements, often without onscreen motivation, have already been established as part of Michael Bay‘s aesthetic for Ambulance (2022) prior to this scene, and yet each movement is still intentional and communicates much of how we’re supposed to feel over the course of this frenetic chase film. Diving from the top of a skyscraper down on a Val Kilmer à la Heat doppelgänger, the camera doesn’t convey paranoia, but rather demonstrates the scale of the crime being committed. Such aesthetic flourishes are seldom successful in other films, but in the hands of Michael Bay they are brought together with the finest craftsmanship that Hollywood can buy… a Hollywood that is on the verge of being no more, but which Bay presents a case for the necessity of in Ambulance.
Like Bay’s previous directorial effort, the light and poppy Netflix release 6 Underground (2019), Ambulance is a film that starts with a veteran in trouble. 6 Underground touched on the subject of suicide among American veterans; and Ambulance, a far more serious film than its predecessor, finds its protagonist Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) struggling with the Veteran Affair’s healthcare services. Will’s wife is in need of an experimental surgery that their insurance won’t cover, and his desire to provide for his wife and infant son pushes him in a direction that he and his family had hoped was behind them. Reuniting with his adoptive brother Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal), we quickly find that Will won’t be able to avoid his past of bank robberies as he’s thrown into Danny’s latest plan.
Meanwhile, an EMT named Cam (Eiza González) is hard at work in the back of an ambulance a few blocks away from where Danny and Will’s bank heist is about to go bad. Gunfire rings out as the police, who were already tipped off about the heist, ambush Danny’s team. Bravely entering the scene, Cam and her ambulance driver pick up a police officer who was shot during the chaos, but the ambulance is then hijacked by Will and Danny in an attempt to evade the law. Cam and the wounded police officer are now hostages, and the survival of the police officer is one of the only things keeping Danny and Will from being shot on sight by law enforcement. From here, Ambulance takes off as a highly engaging, one-thing-after-another thriller of tempered absurdity.
Combining a medical drama with a heist film makes for a shockingly grand time. Not shying away from the carnage (car-nage?), Bay provides us with some serious gross-out moments of body horror, and the violence of a heist film is the catalyst. Throughout all of this are strong performances that keep us grounded amidst the insanity. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes the inner conflict of being involved in a crime that he wishes he didn’t have to commit believable, and that he’s willing to donate blood in the middle of a car chase so that the police officer they’re holding hostage will survive is accepted because of his gentle yet competent demeanor. On the other hand, Jake Gyllenhaal plays evil with such panache and charm that we cannot help but hope that he will successfully pull off an escape – if anything so that Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s character can somehow make it back home to his family. Desperate times calling for desperate measures is ultimately the dramatic draw of Ambulance, and the desperation of the situation for all involved is accentuated by Bay’s ceaselessly moving camera that never misses an expression of shock, panic, or fleeting moment of relief.
A remake of a 2005 film by Danish filmmaker Laurits Munch-Petersen, Bay’s Ambulance is very much an LA film of the present – the letters L and A in the title are presented in a different color to make the location abundantly clear. Bay’s camera, helmed by Roberto De Angelis, relishes in the city. Freeways and overpasses are presented as labyrinthine mazes, and the characters’ knowledge or lack thereof of the city becomes central to their success or failure. Still, the editing patterns and camera movements are often so quick, as if to keep up with the speed of the titular vehicle, that the audience has only to keep up with the characters and trust that they know where they’re going.
Further, this is a post-COVID film that manages to make a visual joke of mask mandates, as Danny’s group of masked bank robbers doesn’t raise the attention of customers who are also masked because of the virus. Ambulance celebrates Eiza Gonzalez’ character who selflessly gives all of her attention to the wounded police officer in her care whilst being a hostage. Even before she’s held hostage, we see her save a little girl from a grisly car accident, and it’s her everyday heroics and dedication to her job that are consistently foregrounded by Chris Fedak’s screenplay as well as by Bay and his team.
As a mid-budget Universal Pictures release, Ambulance‘s $40 million budget is admirable. The practical effects are magnificent, and even as, ostensibly, a remake, this film feels fresh and vital to what cinema is. Image and sound are united, maximally, at the service of the plot and atmosphere of this thriller that takes place over a single afternoon. Bay’s Netflix produced 6 Underground had a budget nearly 4 times bigger than Ambulance, and yet it was primarily for the small screen and left far less of an impression dramatically and aesthetically. A film like Ambulance, one which might fall between the cracks for those who enjoy independent cinema and studio prestige pictures alone, is one made with vision and courage. Simply for telling a straight story, Ambulance stands stronger than Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), which was promoted by Warner Bros. and its director as an invitation back to the cinemas after the lockdown. Yes, Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay are both big names, but it’s the mid-level budget cinema that indicates cinema’s vitality, and Bay ushers in the post-COVID genre film triumphantly with Ambulance. Is it excellent? No, but it’s a really fun time at the movies that audiences will hopefully welcome.
Ambulance is currently ranked 1,023/2,759 (or 63%) on my Flickchart.