This may well be Michael Bay’s best film in 20 years. Depending on who you are that won’t give much cause for celebration, but for fans of Bay’s particular brand of pupil-throttling, ear-bleeding, mind-numbing action, we’ve gathered those defining characteristics of the Bay-flick to examine how well Ambulance fits into the canon (before Bay sets it off again). For what it’s worth, it seems he took this one pretty seriously, openly voicing displeasure with some half-baked VFX shots (“I wish I had more time”) while stressing the practical filmmaking qualities that he couldn’t do without, even during “the height of Covid in LA”.
If there are any errors or omissions, please be understanding; trying to maintain focus during a Michael Bay film is like looking for a needle in a haystack by feeling around with your eyeballs: you’re going about it the wrong way, and you’ll only end up hurting yourself.
Ambulance’s plot is impressively streamlined, picked up by Bay as a lean-mean claustrophobic hijack movie that could be shot while he continues work on a larger scale script. Comprised of a single chase (involving a career criminal, his desperate-for-cash war-vet brother, an EMT nurse, a wounded cop receiving treatment in back of the ambulance, and everyone in LA with a relevant badge coming after them), motivations are clear, developments are easy to follow, and the movie doesn’t pull any midstream shifts in plot and focus or outlandish revelations. Still not particularly smart though.
Bay’s jarring patriotism is reigned in almost entirely. If anything, the director takes a critical stance against his country for allowing a veteran to end up unable to provide for his family. There is still, however, the requisite shot of the American Flag waving in the sunlight.
Nic Cage stands, camera swirls around him in this shot.
Love for the Military
Our protagonist, the excellent Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Will, a decorated veteran (specifically the Purple Heart for those wounded in battle), is played as probably the most stand-up character in the film, aside from Eiza González as the EMT, in keeping with Bay’s overarching love for those who serve selflessly, and hatred of those who take from others (unless, of course, he considers them ‘awesome’). The police often seem to care more for the captain’s dog than for the EMT taken hostage (Bay himself famously loves dogs).
On point. The cramped quarters of the ambulance make Hero shots (see examples above/below) a little improbable, but Bay does find occasion for his Teal and Orange palette. There’s a fair amount of slow-motion, mostly to sell a good car flip or elongate a juicy squirt of blood. What really takes flight from Bay’s repertoire of bombast is the camera, which, using lightweight drones, goes completely ballistic, zooming around and changing direction mid-air to swoop from the top to the bottom of a skyscraper, or through gaps in the architecture to swing past a character’s face (picture the point of view of a falcon on speed). Dynamic shot choices are occasionally used at random, mostly during the preamble to the chase, where Bay will shoot conversations by crosscutting between two 360 degree tracking zoom-shots moving in opposite directions, or just pull-out Dutch angles for fun. Once we’re in the thick of it though, the chase is the best excuse for his sustained “Bayhem” we’ve yet seen.
Practical Effects and Vehicle Action
As previously suggested, on this front the movie is incredible, bar one or two horrendous CG-car crashes. It’s an act of sustained action with invigorating practical effects that somehow seems more appropriate in the pressurized context of the film. Watching this, you start to miss the action flicks of the ‘90s as much as the pair of cops who make references to Bay’s early films do. We can be thankful he’s got this into theaters.
Dwayne Johnson stands, camera swirls around him in this shot.
Basically none at all; women are involved in the action, filmed as the men are, without any remarks on their physiques.
This is debatable. Promotion for the film calls Danny, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, a ‘charismatic career criminal’. You and I might call him unsalvageable and insane (Jake seems to have had fun on set though). Will gets them into a great deal of trouble, having joined the heist in a moment of weakness, but there’s never a doubt that the crisis of conscience he’s undergoing is barreling him towards redemption. The EMT is a saint, and there are no real appearances of the Bay-favoured inadequate, aggressive and obnoxious protagonist.
There occasionally remains the problem of only recognizing what has happened three shots after it’s transpired due to the film’s breakneck speed. Spatial geography is mostly well-maintained, but every so often there are slip ups, leaving you in the dark as to the stakes of a getaway (“Where have they turned into now? Why? Are the cops in front of them, behind them, or both? Oh, whatever”). Cross-cutting keeps the ambulance from becoming a stale setting, and as relayed above, this is one of Bay’s most coherent films.
Not as putrid as he sometimes can be (Bay is one for ‘comical’ stereotypes). Certain characters are clearly played as threatening and malicious for being uncomfortable with Danny’s adoptive black brother, making comments about the fact that he doesn’t “look like your brother”. The film does lean into tropes concerning the Mexican mafia, which become uncomfortable considering the brevity of this plot-thread and the fact that while our protagonists get the benefit of the doubt, and the threat of death and injury is treated with a good deal of weight for most of the film, the Mexican criminals who threaten our leads get to die indiscriminately at the hands of our remorseless heroes.
Martin Lawrence and Will Smith stand, and you guessed it… camera swirls around them in this shot.
A single egregious example: while on her break, the valiant EMT holds up a name brand non-alcoholic beer so that it faces the camera head on, label unobscured, as she and her co-worker make chatter about the drink. Otherwise, nothing stood out too blatantly (things like luxury cars and coffee-makers are fitting accoutrement for Danny’s narcissistic persona).
Some final thoughts on Ambulance, divorced from the human asterisk that is Michael Bay. The film is not especially suspenseful (trust that things do go the way they seem to be going), and it makes some laughable passes at fundamentals like backstories or tying characters together to heighten drama, but the action is priority number one here, and on that front it is breathless. The script doesn’t exactly cut the mustard (some of which is hilarious considering that Danny is supposed to be some kind of bank-robbing-genius, but the team hasn’t planned for the eventuality of a cop pulling their getaway car over), but even ridiculous plot-developments like impromptu high-speed surgeries go down smoothly if you surrender to the experience. The bottom-line is that Michael Bay is a drug to be administered carefully, and in this instance his talents were put to good use, and his failings were less prominent than usual. But, as always, for some, any amount of Bay is a lethal injection.