Review: Michael Bay's Ambulance Has New Bad Boys For You To Love
I have just been to see Ambulance, the new movie by Michael Bay, filmed in Los Angeles in 2021 during pandemic rules. It is said that true creativity comes from having restrictions imposed. Will that be the case this time? Because Bay hasn't had to deal with restrictions in quite a while.
Ambulance is the story of three people, US veteran Will played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, desperate for money to cover his wife's medical bills, facing a system that won't recognise the service he gave. There's his brother Danny, played by Jake Gyllenhall, a charismatic career criminal who instead of giving his brother money, offers him a part in the biggest bank heist in Los Angeles history. But when their getaway goes wrong, the brothers hijack an ambulance containing the same wounded cop they shot, still clinging to life, alongside his paramedic Cam, played by Eiza Gonzales. This film is about taking them all out of their comfort zones – even if those zones are usually as comfortable as soldier, bank robber and paramedic.
The film does have a peculiar history. In the autumn of 2020, Michael Bay was looking for a film script that would allow his crew to do a tight shoot in Los Angeles during lockdown rules. Screenwriter Chris Fedak, co-creator of Chuck, had been punting his adaption of a Danish thriller "Ambulancen" around for five years, took the core concept of two bank robbers who hijack an ambulance with a heart-attack patient on board, and turned it into an action movie script. Mostly set inside an ambulance, it had the kind of narrative restrictions Bay needed. Filming only took thirty-nine days, without the usual Hollywood filming frippery.
So this film does start differently from the usual Michael Bay model. Small and intimate, it continues into the first big conflicts keeping the camera and the eye-line low, from the scenes in the kitchen to the shoot-out on the street, the scenes are kept close and personal. At least at the beginning. Given much of it takes place in an ambulance, it keeps that intimacy running through the film, which is more unusual for Bay, even as the action ramps up. Everyone who matters is in close quarters, and the audience is brought in as co-conspirators to their escape. We are totally on their side and forget our misgivings, fast.
However the film is daggered with criticism of the system, Will's medical bills being the biggest. His recollection of the first time he handled this amount of money "I was giving it to the Taliban" is a funny line in context, but it injects the idea that society is the real criminal here. Not the usual go-to place for Michael Bay, nor is the all-but-breaking the wall observation that this "was a very expensive car chase".
But that may also be because Will doesn't really belong in this film with the rest of the criminals. They are Tarantino-cool, he is not. They are quirky, bolshy and hyped up, he is not. He is a soldier, he will do his duty for his family, but is surrounded by people on a very different plane, including his brother. Danny believes he is the good guy, despite taking cold, callous actions that are anything but. He just has to be able to justify it to himself, but Will is his conscious, sitting on his shoulder. While Cam, someone whose life is one of control, and who deliberately stays distant to her patients, is forced to go further than anyone in that ambulance. The medics are the real heroes, that is something that Michael Bay definitely took from the pandemic lockdowns as well. And this film hammers that home, with slow-mo and lens flare, with all the subtlety you'd expect from his movies.
But even as the action ramps up, Ambulance feels more like Edgar Wright's Baby Driver in its approach to physics, angles and what is allowed on the screen. It even takes one of the Baby Driver car chase sequences, for its own purposes. The film also gets to show more of a Los Angeles underbelly, through the back alleyways, underneath the bridges, excavating an LA rarely seen in such films, including Bay's own.
Talking of which, Michael Bay throws in references to his own films, with cops quoting from both The Rock and Bad Boys, he even gives us a Watchmen smiley face button with a blood spatter across it, as a nod to a friend. This helps to hype up the ridiculousness of the situation that Will has found himself in. From police dogs that are too big, to the slowest car chase in the world, to the big FBI cheese being pulled out of marriage counselling, and a new kind of group zoom meeting that could only have been inspired by lockdown, the film comes dangerously close to the likes of Crank in some places. Even the look of Los Angeles, with a focus on the graffiti and store signs more than the skyscrapers, doesn't make sense as a place that should exist – not outside of movies at least. But it is Will's downbeat presence that brings the movie down to more of a reality.
Because while there are fewer explosions, they do come. The expansive overhead camera shots do eventually arrive. It's all just… a bit tighter, and they have to be earned. Michael Bay should make more of his films this way. I mean, no one can take anything on the screen really seriously. But it makes it easier to be laughing with a Michael Bay movie, swept up in the kineticism of the film, than at it.
Ambulance is released in the UK and much of Europe tomorrow, the 25th of March, and in the US and Canada on the 8th of April,