I think it is a common childhood dream to watch an action movie and ask, why can’t they make an action movie that is all action? No character development, no boring talkie bits, but just pure non-stop action? It is clear to me that director Michael Bay has never forgotten that dream. His long back catalogue of action hits is packed with excessive mayhem, including Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, and five separate Transformers movies. Whether giant robot fisticuffs in those Transformers films, using cars as ammunition in Bad Boys II, or even – my personal favourite – inserting a Ferrari-versus-Humvee car chase into a movie ostensibly set on Alcatraz, Bay has never encountered a film that was not able to have another shoot-out, street chase, or explosion inserted into it somewhere.
This has all made Bay something of a contentious filmmaker, since any viewer seeking depth, character, or nuance in their action cinema is unlikely to find it in Bay’s works. On top of that there is his tendency to shoot any women on-screen with a ogling, somewhat sleazy male gaze – Transformers: Dark of the Moon seems likely the worst offender in that regard – and occasional lapses into crass sexual references and moderate racism – for the nadir of that problem, go to another Transformers outing: this time Revenge of the Fallen with it’s gold-capped tooth, hip-hop styled illiterate comic relief robots. At the same time, when it comes to pure action cinema Bay is honestly difficult to beat. When his worst tendencies are held in check, audiences get to see some outstanding sequences that manage to express a furious emotional energy while still keeping the geography of each scene clear and easy to follow. His first Transformers does an unrivalled job of expressing the scale and weight of its giant robot characters, films like Bad Boys and Bad Bays II successfully amplify the late Tony Scott’s wide-angle aesthetic to an admirable extreme, and The Rock remains by-and-large a late 20th century action masterpiece.
Michael Bay may be representative of a widely disliked form of high concept, overly glossy, tentpole cinema, and he may seem to represent himself in a self-glorified, college frat-boy manner, but pound for pound he is still one of the strongest action directors of the past 30 years. His films may more often than be flawed, but flawed does not necessarily mean bad. There is plenty of value in each of his films; maybe less so in Pearl Harbor (2001), to be fair, but we’re talking general terms here. Plus anyone who thinks Bay is unaware of his fratboy image should check out his knowing cameo in 1999’s Mystery Men.
All of that in mind, I can think of no better director for Ambulance (2022), an action thriller that rushes through its set-up – an attempted bank robbery goes terribly wrong, and two criminals hijack an ambulance to escape – before spending a little under two hours in a Grand Theft Auto-inspired car chase through Los Angeles. It is, for better or worse, one of the most Michael Bay-esque Michael Bay films to date. Likely due in part to that excess, it is also one of the strongest.
Ex-marine Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), desperate for money to afford his wife’s experimental cancer treatment, goes to his career criminal brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for help. Danny convinces him to participate in a $32 million dollar bank heist. When the heist is interrupted by the police, Will and Danny go on the run – shooting police officer Zach Parker (Jackson White) in the process. When they hijack an ambulance minutes later to make their escape, they find Zach already inside with paramedic Camille Thompson (Eiza González). Left with no other option, Will and Danny take them both hostage.
Ambulance is definitely too long. There is, it turns out, good reasons why most action films do not run with one big sustained chase sequence for two hours. That in mind, it is impressive just how long Bay manages to keep the suspense and thrills going before the film begins losing momentum. The film remakes an earlier Danish production, Ambulancen (2005), which I have not seen. That movie ran a tight 75 minutes. Bay’s adaptation runs for 137. If it feels as if it begins to run slack, it is probably not your imagination.
What does help Bay manage the longer length is a talented cast. The focus is on the criminal brothers. Abdul-Mateen is sympathetic and tremendously engaging, playing Will as a good person making bad life choices. He has been consistently interesting for some time now, either in support (The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Matrix Resurrections) or the lead (Candyman), and has become an actor I have started to actively look for in new films. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Danny against type: untrustworthy, a little jittery and nervous, and with a growing potential for violence as the film goes on. Eiza González does her best with an under-developed and relatively stereotypical role; it is a perennial problem with Michael Bay films that women are sidelined or otherwise poorly served, and that continues to be a problem here. Keir O’Donnell is better served as FBI agent Anson Clark, a former friend of Danny’s now dispatched to capture him. It is rather nice that the film introduces him with his husband, makes no secret about how he is gay, but does not descend to stereotype or lightly homophobic mockery. The camp hairdresser in Bay’s The Rock would be jealous.
Perhaps it is simply that, in an industry of competing superhero franchises, it is refreshing to simply watch an action film that does not have the fate of the world at stake. Perhaps it is seeing something that is less obviously saturated with computer-generated stunts and set pieces. Perhaps Michael Bay actually is pretty great at his job, and with the benefit of maturity – and ignoring a few of his Transformers sequels – he is giving action movie fans precisely what we need. Ambulance is a lot of fun.