The Pitch: In his 2019 Netflix film 6 Underground, Michael Bay stages an opening car chase where his heroes smash through the streets of Italy, goring bad guys and yelling nonsense at each other. “I’m conducting surgery!” one character screams while, essentially, just tending to a wound. But maybe that moment stuck in Bay’s head.
Maybe he regretted not making that set-piece more surgical, to the point where he built an entire movie called Ambulance around the premise: What if you were performing life-saving surgery during a car chase?
Technically, Bay did not come up with this premise. Ambulance is a remake of a 2005 Dutch film, and Bay is not a credited screenwriter. But his penchant for breaking tension with over-explained jokes, or breaking jokes with melodramatic bombast, transcend any mere screenwriter, and the American version of Ambulance offers all of his favorite things: cars, trucks, explosions, exploding cars, exploding trucks, grim-faced guys carrying large weapons at a diagonal across their bodies, gore, sweaty overacting, and relentlessness.
Even in this nominal heist movie, he doesn’t want to stop and have Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) stop and explain the plan to his adopted brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Will just shows up, hat in hand, hoping for a loan to get his wife a medical procedure not covered by their insurance; about 15 minutes later, he’s in Danny’s ragtag crew on his way to a $32 million bank robbery.
When the heist inevitably goes wrong, Danny and Will wind up hijacking an ambulance, with the authorities hot on their trail. A desperate crime saga and a vehicle that can’t slow down: Whether he meant to or not, Bay has made Speed Heat.
Eiza Saves the Day: Ambulance is not as good as Heat, or Speed, or any number of rip-offs of either movie. But Bay may be the perfect director for the dubious goal of combining Michael Mann operatics with Jan De Bont slickness. And he lucks into his most likable lead character in decades with Cam (Eiza González), the unlucky EMT who happens to be saving the life of a cop (Jackson White) shot during the robbery when her ambulance gets jacked.
Cam is introduced in parallel with the Sharp brothers, and if her arc — best EMT in the biz who purposefully avoids any personal attachment to her patients once her job is done, forced to get uncomfortably personal with bank robbers — is a little pat, she also represents a refreshing change of pace from the authoritarian machismo of Bay’s usual heroes.
Bay typically encourages his cast to overact; just look at Gyllenhaal here, who takes about three minutes of screen time to rev into overdrive. He’s compulsively watchable, but the performance is compulsive, too, and Danny quickly becomes a movie-world caricature, yet another Mean Streets hothead endangering the calmer hero.
González, meanwhile, gives a steady, charismatic, movie-star performance as a woman whose 20-minute bursts of on-the-job stress have formed a non-stop pressure-cooker. She goes a long way toward evening out Bay’s wild tonal shifts.
Traffic Jam: Yes, he’s still fond of driving mordant slapstick, slow-mo sentiment, yammering asides, redundant side characters, and shameless fake-outs into each other at top speed. Ambulance is yet another project seemingly conceived at some point as a smaller, more intimate suspense vehicle for Bay to try out, promptly blown up into a 136-minute spectacular.
Maybe the impetus for going bigger (again) was the dexterity of the drone cameras he’s used to capture all kinds of seemingly impossible shots where the camera zooms over, across, and through the L.A. streets and buildings. Many of these shots are eye-popping — so naturally, Bay often cuts away from them mid-zip.
The kineticism constantly threatens to wear itself out, or at least become laughable: Witness the post-robbery scene where Will and Danny scramble through an endless series of hallways and tunnels, attempting to improvise a viable escape plan as the cops close in. Despite having rushed through the actual heist, Bay can’t just get the guys to the ambulance; they have to run and run and run until they start to look like that part in Spinal Tap where the band gets lost backstage.
The Verdict: For all of Bay’s predilections and excesses… do you have to kind of hand it to him? Moreso than anything Bay has made since the 1990s, Ambulance often works, and not just in fits and starts. The pervasive sourness and sneering of Bay’s couple of decades seems to have dissipated here.
On some level, it’s not necessarily fair to praise him for this. Other filmmakers make non-sour, non-sneering movies all the time, almost like it’s second nature for them not to seethe with contempt for their audience.
But Ambulance tightens the story’s frequent ridiculousness into genuine tension; it’s just retro enough to feel like an old-fashioned thriller done up with some newfangled tech that doesn’t choke the images with overly obvious CG. At times, it attains a kind of deranged grandeur — even if Bay’s precision is far from surgical.
Where to Watch: Ambulance is in theaters everywhere April 8.