‘Ambulance’ review: Michael Bay is our emergency movie technician
By A.O. Scott
I wish someone had come with me to the screening of “Ambulance,” so I could have leaned over at a key point early in the story and whispered, “That must be the ambulance.” It’s great when movies make you feel smart.
Not that anyone necessarily goes to Michael Bay movies for that reason. And “Ambulance,” which includes verbal shout-outs to “Bad Boys” and “The Rock,” is something of a return to form for this auteur of vehicular mayhem and muscular bombast. A relatively low-budget project, especially when compared with the “Transformers” franchise he started, it bundles explosive set pieces into a plot that would be preposterous if you stopped to think about it.
The whole idea is that you won’t. Bay’s virtuosic flouting of the laws of physics, probability and narrative coherence is meant to catapult you into a zone of sublimity where melodramatic emotion and adrenalized excitement fuse into a whole new kind of sensation. Big, operatic feelings — mostly having to do with loyalty, honor and professionalism — are both heightened and lightened by propulsive speed and overscaled action. You’re not required to believe any of it, but somehow the word that comes to mind when I reflect on the 136 minutes I spent pinned to my seat watching this thing is “persuasive.”
That’s partly because “Ambulance,” built on the chassis of a 2005 Danish movie of the same name, is advancing an argument, or maybe a meta-argument, about the current state and aesthetic raison d’être of cinema.
Some of the salient points are made through dialogue (the script is by Chris Fedak), in a series of offhand jokes about the current state of pop-cultural literacy. At one point the criminal mastermind (Jake Gyllenhaal) refers to one of his minions as “Mel Gibson,” insisting on a resemblance that isn’t really there and invoking “Braveheart.” He seems to think that movie won “a bunch of Grammys.”
Later, a reference to “The Rock,” the Michael Bay movie, will be mistaken for a reference to the Rock, the wrestler and actor (also known as Dwayne Johnson) who appeared in “Pain & Gain,” a different Michael Bay movie. A graybeard Los Angeles police captain (Garret Dillahunt) will call a younger FBI agent (Keir O’Donnell) “Doogie Howser.” “I’m sorry, boomer, but I don’t know who that is,” the whippersnapper retorts.
OK, that one is not really about cinema per se, but to me these odd little notes signal that Bay, born on the cusp between the baby boom and Generation X, has traded in his enfant terrible status for membership in the old guard. A glorious heritage is slipping away before our eyes. Action is required!
Ergo “Ambulance,” which takes place in a single hectic day in Los Angeles and is defiantly the kind of movie they supposedly don’t make anymore. It isn’t driven by the brand requirements of a lucrative intellectual property, and it isn’t something you could just as well watch at home.
Before the major chasing and shooting gets underway, the titular vehicle and its heroic EMT, Cam Thompson (Eiza González), attend to a young car-accident victim who has been impaled on a piece of wrought-iron fence. This kind of mishap is a staple of shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “9-1-1,” and “Ambulance” can be seen as a sustained critique of television’s domesticated presentation of disaster. Cam saves the child in the morning and by the time rush hour rolls around is performing emergency abdominal surgery in the middle of a car chase while conferring with trauma surgeons via video chat. Exploding cars and an exploding spleen, cut together in perfect counterpoint: that’s cinema, kids.
So are the wild vertical drone shots in which the camera rockets skyward before plunging back to earth, a carnival-ride move that Bay adds to his repertoire of swooping, ricocheting, vertiginous effects. And so, finally, is the story, an old-fashioned concatenation of coincidences, collisions and foolproof plans gone horribly awry.
At the center is a daylight robbery that plucks $32 million from a bank — a modest haul compared with the $100 million Sean Connery was after in “The Rock” back in 1996, especially when you adjust for inflation. The main robbers are Danny (Gyllenhaal) and Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who grew up as brothers, raised by a criminal father. Flashbacks show their boyhood selves at play, but as grown-ups they have taken diverging paths. Danny followed in Dad’s footsteps, while Will joined the Marines. Now married (to Moses Ingram) with an infant son, he’s desperate for money to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment. Stopping by Danny’s place of business to ask for a loan, he ends up signing on with Danny’s crew.
Eventually they are joined by two hostages: Cam and a rookie cop named Zach (Jackson White), whose partner, Mark (Cedric Sanders), becomes part of an elaborate tour of the freeways and alleys of Los Angeles that also involves a lot of other people on both sides of the law. It all ends up pretty much where you expect it will, but the actors do a good job of seething and emoting under pressure, and Gyllenhaal does a volatile, charming sociopath thing that isn’t as annoying as it might be.
So after much deliberation, my critical verdict on “Ambulance” is: It’s a movie!