The Marvel machine may be the most fortuitous development for Michael Bay. Though the director hasn’t dabbled in the world of superheroes—despite a fondness for a cinematic universe of the robot variety—the homogenized, green-screen wasteland of today’s box-office behemoths has indirectly led to a reappreciation of the director’s schoolboy giddiness for practical effects and continually upping the ante for where he can place a camera. As bombastic and occasionally mind-numbing as his approach may be, there’s distinct poetry to the momentum of a maximalist vision where previs filmmaking vis-a-vis a committee is not only missing from his vocabulary, but a kinetic approach makes such a proposition nigh impossible. With Ambulance, a streamlined spectacle that borrows liberally from Heat, Speed, and John Q, Bay seems to be at his most comfortable and invigorated in years, milking the ridiculously heightened premise for all its worth while maintaining grounded stakes despite a few bumps along the road.
Preparing for his 38th bank heist, a family tradition instilled in him from his late father, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) has his sights set on a score topping $32 million. It’s serendipitous timing for Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), his adopted brother, who faces insurmountable costs in an experimental cancer treatment for his wife Amy (Moses Ingram). A veteran not able to get ahead in the current job market, Will asks Danny for a loan, but strapped for cash himself, his only offer is taking part in the heist. In typical Bay fashion of keeping the adrenaline rush, Will has just a few minutes to decide before the planned crime spree kicks into gear.
Scripted by Chris Fedak and based on the 2005 Danish film (curiously the second remake of a film from Denmark that Gyllenhaal has made in the past year), Ambulance offers a stripped-down, back-to-basics playground for Bay, a filmmaker whose worst tendencies are often tied up with juvenile humor and gratuitous objectification. There’s little opportunity for these impulses here. Most quips are only given room to breathe for mere seconds amidst the non-stop, two-hour chase. While they range from the unnecessarily self-referential (with nods to The Rock and Bad Boys) to cringe-worthy (Gyllenhaal’s character cracking self-deprecating jokes about his herpes), they register as mere blips amongst frenetic chaos. A considerable step-up from the eye candy box to which most of his female characters are relegated, Cam (Eiza González)—a top paramedic who is held hostage when her ambulance gets hijacked by the brothers—is one of the most thoughtfully-rendered characters in Bay’s oeuvre. Contending with saving the life of a cop (Jackson White) who is bleeding out in the back of the vehicle as a high-speed pursuit ensues, along with navigating Danny’s on-the-fly plans and Will’s regret for taking part in the situation at all, González’s character emerges as the moral center of the story.
Gyllenhaal, seemingly returning to the mass-appeal pop phase of his early career, is a delight of manic energy, toeing the line between psychopath and charismatic anti-hero. He also steals a fair share of the spotlight from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II; despite bringing an emotional throughline fighting for his family’s future, it can feel like Bay’s camera is more interested in the unpredictability of Danny, leaving Will in a one-note perch at the driver’s seat. The cops-and-robbers shape also gives ample time to those tracking the ambulance’s every move, namely the surprisingly laidback Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), whose special unit doesn’t play by the standard rulebook. Wearing a Mann influence in providing generous sympathy for both the criminals and those on the right side of the law, Bay can’t reach up to the Heat filmmaker’s scene-setting skills in spatial acuity and singularly memorable set pieces––try as he might with the opening heist, which does impressively kick into high gear earlier than expected, cutting out bloated exposition. With what he lacks in patience, Bay makes up for in keeping one’s heart pumping with each ridiculous new turn, with drone photography the likes you’ve never seen before, swooping around buildings and under bridges as if from Superman’s point of view. Pietro Scalia’s editing may chop up this impressive work more than one desires, but it’s all in step with Bay’s unrelenting pace, buoyed by Lorne Balfe’s score which begins with a Carpenter-esque setting of the score before morphing into a full Zimmer-style assault.
Taking up the mantle left by Tony Scott and the nonstop energy of his final outings Unstoppable and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Ambulance operates in a similar mode of clear stakes-setting with a simplistically structured set-up to wring out every inch of tension possible. While Bay’s frantic approach is a double-edged sword, delivering pure entertainment from the get-go while lacking in any particularly ingenious set piece, it’s a refreshing proposition to see him return to the basics of action filmmaking. And if missing the full-bodied personality of The Rock or the satirical sharpness of Pain & Gain, Ambulance is the purest distillation of Bay’s strengths. Here’s hoping he can have as much fun with a few more outings of comparable scope before franchise overlords come knocking once again.
Ambulance opens in theaters on Friday, April 8.