Directed by: Michael Bay
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Written by Taylor Baker
To many cinephiles, Michael Bay is grotesque, a director known for bombasticity, commercialism (and commercials), and the progenitor of franchises like “Transformers” and “TMNT.” To many of the masses Michael Bay is an entertainer, they read his name and associate it with spectacle just like reading Cedric the Entertainer’s name and knowing that a pleasant time is about to be had. They often don’t know if he was the director or the producer of things they’ve enjoyed such as “A Quiet Place,” “The Purge,” “Transformers,” or “TMNT” (hint: he only directed one of them.), just that he provides a good time, and his newest film “Ambulance” does exactly that. “Ambulance” is seeping with drone shots, has more cuts than a 90-minute feature built solely off montages, yet manages to straddle the line between “what the fuck are you doing?” and “I can’t stop looking” as well as his films ever have. After the globe-trotting trotting “6 Underground” Bay has returned to America, providing a modern fable of two brothers, in a split version of Los Angeles. The cops, and the robbers, our anti-heroes are the latter.
Bay is arguably one of the best, if not the best commercial directors in the world today. If we were in the 1940s with a full war propaganda campaign underway there is no doubt he would be the premiere gun for hire, and that’s as apparent as it’s ever been in “Ambulance” as he shoots roaring Dodge Chargers hauling cops behind the titular ambulance. The aforementioned drone cinematography zooms up and down skyscrapers and sweeps between helicopters and the hurtling vehicles below. This grandiose presentation begets at least the question if not the assumption that Bay may be more self-aware than we recognize. The actual content of “Ambulance” is at least teetering toward attempting the complex, after robbing a bank in a once in a lifetime opportunity Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Will Sharp and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Danny Sharp abscond in an ambulance with a wounded officer who was shot by Will. Eiza González’s Cam Thompson an EMT working in the ambulance is tasked with keeping the officer alive. The rest of the film, as you may imagine, plays as one long chase scene as they try to get away with the 16 million dollars they’d stolen.
Writing for Michael Bay seems akin to instructing a bulldozer how you want a stump removed, he might be able to get it just right, but he may just as well hit it with full power and see what happens. Full power seems to be his preference with first-time screenwriter Chris Fedak’s screenplay which plays out as more amalgamation of ideas and feelings that represent larger socioeconomic and nationalistic philosophies than well-worn characters and scenes heavy with substance. It’s in this very superfluousness that I would argue Bay excites more than just about any other, sure the first hour of him making these helicopters and police cruisers look sexy is pretty neat, but when we’re two hours in watching cops stand around a man bleeding out for nothing other than an unwritten rule that goes against human morality it seems that something else is in play. When a fraternal bond is stronger than wealth, money more meaningful than a relationship, and risk less important than the reward, you have to at least pose the question, does Bay actually have some conviction that we’ve largely been writing off? The man who made a movie about chemical weapons on a defunct prison island, a team of American oil drillers saving the world from a foreign body, and a story of clones on an island that seems to be a clone of at least a few dozen other stories itself. It seems he at least on face deserves a bit more credit than we give him. And yet, there are extended minutes in each of his films that feel vapid, grandiose, and empty, these moments surely can’t all be carefully calculated secret genius. Instead, I think it’s more likely that there is a lot more baby to the bathwater of Michael Bay’s success than film critics have ever agreed upon, but that doesn’t excuse the vapidity and mindless decadence we so often find in his films.
Bay as many filmmakers do has tended to play off two main characters, Lowrey and Burnett in “Bad Boys” and “Bad Boys II”, Mason and Goodspeed in “The Rock”, and Lugo and Doyle in “Pain & Gain” are just a handful of examples. In “Ambulance” he instead replicates “6 Underground” not only extending the number of legitimate characters that will play into the finale but also introducing a primary third, Eiza González’s Cam Thompson as a balance to the danger of Danny and the morality of Will. Although these characters each feel as if they’re only built to complete a final function in the film’s climax, the path there does entail some level of sincerity regardless of how on the nose and cheesy the dialogue and plot points become. Oscillating between Garret Dillahunt’s Captain Monroe and the ambulance simultaneously creates a sense of stakes and comparison between someone who would cause collateral damage if they knew someone from their team wouldn’t get hurt in the process and those who’d prefer no violence at all. But as with all art, it is up to the audience to decide, and if anything is certain, like Cedric, Bay will be happy if you’re merely entertained.
“Ambulance” is in wide theatrical release.
You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on Letterboxd, Twitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.