Somewhere in the heaving, screaming twisted metal of Ambulance is a taut, effective 90 minuter that could have been Michael Bay’s Mad Max: Emergency Services. That being said, I will settle for what Bay has delivered – an exhaustive tear through the streets of LA, with the filmmaker stacking on as much stress on the viewer’s shoulders as humanely possible, and opting for a more grounded approach, at least about as grounded as Bay will allow.
Will (Yahyah Abdul-Mateen II) is a former soldier facing dire times. His wife requires an experimental six-figure surgery, money he simply doesn’t have. Desperate times force him to turn to his adopted brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), a charismatic, bordering psychopathic individual. It’s clear early on that Danny brings carnage into the lives of whoever is within close radius of him, with Will joining the armed services to avoid anymore trouble Danny can thrust upon him. But, again, these are desperate times, and Will is in need of large sums of cash in a very short period. After a frenetic reunion between the two, Danny enlists Will into a $32 million bank heist, and it’s not long before the brothers and their crew are staring down multiple gun barrels of LA’s hyper militarised finest, particularly a cocky group of anti robbery specialists led by a very, very swaggering Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt). With the majority of the gunslingers dead, Will and Danny make a quick exit by commandeering the titular ambulance, replete with hard as nails paramedic, Cam (Eiza Gonzalez) and Officer Zach (Jackson White), a wounded cop. Just in case it wasn’t stressful enough.
Dour subject matter aside, this feels like Bay’s most playful film since 2013’s Pain & Gain. And his most mature. Mature, not so much in how much blood or f bombs he can lay down, but more so how much emotion he’s wanting to inject into the story. Maybe not enough for even his most ardent critics, he does make a special effort to make you care about the characters stuck in the back of the out of control emergency vehicle. Gyllenhaal teeters between frenetic charm and just outright channelling the purest of Nic Cage energy, while Abdul-Mateen is the calming centre of the whole affair, bringing in a stoicism almost to counter balance the intense shouty energy bouncing around. Gonzales, too is given a lot to play with, an EMT who projects a tough exterior only so as to deflect from the trauma her job forces her to witness on a daily basis. Her introductory sequence, in fact, is deeply effective, with her saving a small child from the wreckage of a horrific car accident.
While there’s a lot of money exploding on screen, this is a back to basics Bay, surprisingly more so than Bad Boys. One familiar with his work would get the sense that the often bombastic filmmaker has constrained himself technically to see what he’s capable of creatively. It’s definitely not his most polished of films, but that works for the material, not against it and it’s clear that Bay is pushing himself to see what else is left in the tank. And drones. The man has discovered mini drones and uses them to sometimes dizzying, often dazzling effect. He sees the potential that they offer, particularly in the action setting, and lets rip at every possible juncture, making for some truly outstanding and mind boggling sequences.
As lean as the story feels, as point A to point B as it can get, there is at least 45 minutes here that could simply vanish and it wouldn’t make an iota of difference. Characters are introduced for no reason other than to add shallow twists into the mix. There’s an entire subplot about Danny’s cartel associates that’s completely unnecessary. And of course there are action sequences that need a good, old fashioned trim, but that’s nothing new with this filmmaker.
Ambulance is not a Bay joint that will bring in any new converts, but it will satisfy those who are familiar with what the director’s capable of, appreciating a more stripped back and mature approach. Just bring earplugs should it all get a little too much.