Anyone else get the feeling that Michael Bay was maybe getting past his prime?
I realise it’s a weird question to ask when the majority of the cinema going public would probably argue that he’s been past his prime since as early as the mid-90’s, but ever since he submerged himself in the obnoxious waters of the Transformers sequels (I love the first, fight me) he seemed to be getting way worse. Never was this more evident than after witnessing the exhausting mess that was Netflix’s 6 Underground, an action comedy epic that did us the disservice of being neither particularly exciting or funny. But somehow, cinema’s greatest purveyor of Bayhem has managed to pull out of this slump by putting the peddle to the metal and going back to his (sort of) stripped down roots with Ambulance; an action thriller that pounds all the pulses just like the old Mike used to do.
In a desperate financial situation due to his wife’s escalating medical bills, war veteran Will Sharp is coaxed into being part of a high stakes, LA bank heist by his adopted wild card brother Danny. Of course, Hollywood lore dictates that everything will spectacularly fly of the rails due to a random, unforeseen wrinkle that manages to reduce the plan to FUBAR – so allow me to introduce rookie cop Zack who stumbles into the tense robbery because he has a crush on one of the bank tellers. Before you can say “everything gets fucked up”, everything gets fucked up and after the bullets have started flying, Danny’s crew are demoted to bullet riddled corpses and Zack has managed to catch some lead himself. Desperate to not have a dead cop on their hands (especially in LA), Danny and Will hijack an ambulance crewed by talented, but emotionally closed off EMT Cam Thompson whom they demand at gunpoint to save Zack’s life as they speed off through streets in order to make their getaway.
However, luck impressively gives them a stiff middle finger when it’s discovered that the SIS (Special Investigation Section) of the LAPD under the command of impossibly gruff Captain Munroe have had Danny’s crew under surveillance and are now dedicated to bringing him in as tenaciously as a dog with a bone.
As numerous police cars, helicopters and countless surveillance drones hounds their every step as they race through the sunny streets, Cam struggles to stabilise Zack while the relationship between the devoted, adopted brothers grows ever more strained as huge pile ups, roaring gunfire and exploding spleens threaten to make all of them incredibly dead at any give time.
Talk about your LA traffic, huh?
So, to avoid any more Bay-style hyperbole, not only is Ambulance the director’s most focused movie since 2016’s war epic 13 Hours and possibly his best action flick since The Rock. It’s bizarre to say that Bay’s gone back to his stripped-back roots when said roots involved Nic Cage and Sean Connery killing terrorists in Alcatraz, but he really has had a change of focus to keep things relatively simple and calm (for him, at least). This may have quite possibly been a result of the movie being filming during COVID restrictions which very well have forced the car detonating lunatic to rein in all of his worst habits to a more tolerable level. Massively reduced are the lingering, leering shots of hot women (I only counted one unnecessary shot of Eiza Gonzalez’s butt), bizarre homophobic humor, questionable racial stereotypes and rambling ad-libbing from overacting side characters and as a result Bay has to put in some actual character work. It helps that the three leads are totally up for it too with Gonzalez’s improbably stunning EMT (even sprayed with blood with her arms inside a human torso up to elbow, she’s flawlessly attractive), emerging as the main character thanks to her convincing dedication, however, in comparison, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s reluctant criminal kind of gets a bit of a short shrift as the movie sort of forgets about him during the middle third of the film when all he is required to do is steer and yell, but the return of his arc by the end manages to finally justify his involvement. Rounding out the trio of leads is what seems to be a version of Jake Gyllenhaal that’s comprised utterly of caffeine and ephedrine who attacks the role with the eye-bulging ferocity Nic Cage turning into the Ghost Rider. Bellowing, yelling, ad-libbing and wise cracking his way through an unrestrained performance that’s as illogical (Danny tells anyone who’ll listen that he’s nowhere near as crazy as his old man and then spends the rest of his time screaming point blank into people’s faces while his eyes bug out) as it is fun, the actor managed to somehow match his honed insanity perfectly with Bay’s frenetic camera work and editing.
Launching the audience through endless whirling pans and swooping drone shots that look like they’ve sellotaped an IMAX camera to a carrier pigeon, it successfully emulates the actual rollercoaster ride Bay obviously wants this claustrophobic epic to be. The director obviously seems to be attempting to take the bank heist shootout from Michael Mann’s Heat and expand it to monstrous proportions, but his hyperactive style and gallows humor means that he’s instead managed to craft something more akin to an extended mission from Grand Theft Auto. However, this actually plays far better, especially when he adds surreal moments like a birkenstock wearing robber getting crushed by his own getaway truck, gatling gun wielding gang bangers, or a side plot involving a gargantuan dog whose diet consists of Mongolian barbecue and it really adds to the chaos far better than Bay managed in Pain And Gain.
There’s problems of course – I mean, if it wasn’t at least fifteen minutes too long it wouldn’t be Bay – but for all the overblown carnage, drawn out melodrama, twirling camera work and lapses into outright lunacy (LA seems weirdly deserted despite everyone fretting about the incoming rush hour) it’s a genuinely good feeling to once again say I enjoyed myself immensely while watching an absurd epic at the alter of the Duke of Nuke himself.
If there’s any way we could get Bay to make all his films under COVID restrictions from now on that would be a real plus, because just like the real vehicle, Ambulance moves fast and makes tons of noise, magnificently.