It is nice to be back in the swing of things and getting out to the movies more regularly throughout the week. Even though I love independent film, I grew up with mainstream action flicks so I have a soft spot for that stuff too. Ambulance is a frenetic, ocular assault that careens its way through the streets of Los Angeles and serves as a platform for Michael Bay’s visual language that, maybe more than ever, prioritizes style over substance.
A down-on-his-luck former marine turns to his brother for a loan but gets dragged into what is supposed to be an easy snatch-and-grab heist from the Federal Reserve Bank in LA (yes, “easy” and “Federal Reserve Bank” shouldn’t be in the same sentence yet here we are). Of course, things go sideways and the main players in the heist have to hijack (you guessed it) an ambulance and kidnap an EMT in the process of their escape attempt. Will they get away with it, or is the ending a foregone conclusion?
Michael Bay has been making movies for nearly 30-years and he has made several movies that I enjoy quite a lot. Films such as Bay Boys, The Rock (which is not so subtly name-dropped into the script and is, admittedly, a pretty boss move), Armageddon, The Island, and Pain & Gain all work because we care about, or are at least fascinated by, the people at the center of those stories. Even the first film in the Transformers franchise had enough of that before the series devolved into a kaleidoscope of undulating robot innards. There is only a feigned attempt at creating authentic characters here. It’s more of a cursory glance, giving them just enough to get the story into full-throttle action mode. Maybe that was a strategic decision on Bay’s part because Chris Fedak’s transition from TV to the first screenplay wasn’t so smooth, but the term “Bayhem” was also born for a reason. I have no way of knowing exactly how the final product got to the screen but, given the cast and the simplicity of the setup, I can say with confidence that it should have been better.
I had no quality expectations heading into the theater. I didn’t opt for the IMAX experience but saw Bay returning to the more down-to-earth action flick that put him on the map and two actors I like and trust, shot in my hometown city. How bad could it possibly be? You might be surprised. About 15-minutes in, I leaned over to my girlfriend and whispered, “Is it just me or is this terrible?” She replied with one of those looks of confirmation that exists within couples and asked me if I wanted to leave and get dinner instead. I opted to stick it out because A.) I’m a curious person by nature and I don’t walk out of movies and B.) I’m a fan of action movies and, as mentioned earlier, I have enjoyed many of Bay’s films. I’m ultimately glad I stuck it out.
Without getting into too much detail, there is a point during the middle of the film where the intensity inside the ambulance finally outweighs the seemingly endless chaos that’s ensuing outside of it. In this fairly brief moment, we get a glimpse at this movie’s true potential. Not only does it narrow down the scope of the film to just the three key performers, but it’s also the time at which things are the most unpredictable. Sure it’s crazy and (mostly) unbelievable, but it works well within the context of what you’re already watching, and, in a movie that’s already longer than it needed to be, it’s the most worthy of the screen time it’s given.
With Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in the two lead roles, that’s a lot of acting firepower at your disposal as a filmmaker. You might think that showcasing their substantial skill and exploring the depth of the very complicated relationship between their characters, especially as brothers, would be a good investment but the dialogue that made it to the screen doesn’t do them any favors and Bay didn’t seem particularly interested in them beyond that anyway.
Abdul-Mateen II is technically the lead here. It’s his story, and sympathy for him is spoonfed to the audience during his introduction in the opening minutes. Gyllenhaal gets the more charismatic character to play, but even that is limited by the dialogue and his introduction doesn’t go down smooth. There’s supposed to be this bond between the two of them. It’s called “love” on numerous occasions but saying that word and writing that to make it real are different things. When Gyllenhaal’s Danny is first introduced, he’s a smarmy, superficial, idiot who is laser-focused on impressing his brother by showing off a new Keurig machine. While claiming to “love” his brother, he manipulates him into participating in the heist, using guilt and some sense of familial obligation. Even Danny’s defense of Will (his brother) is more a testament to his ego than anything resembling actual love. Families are complicated and the dialogue alludes to some of the characters’ shared history, but that too is mostly superficial to move the plot along and the more complicated nature of their relationship is never truly addressed. As things unfold, we realize Will is a fairly normal person while Danny may be a psychopath, but that too is mostly brushed off using humor in passing. The meat of the film should have been them hashing out their issues amid substantial pressure, but it’s a fragment that gets lost among bullet casings and flying chunks of asphalt.
Making this movie must have been quite the experience for cinematographer Robert De Angelis. Bay’s visual cravings allow for a lot of creative cinematography and that’s where this movie does excel. There are some legitimately incredible action shots in this film. Truly. In particular, some incredible drone shots work very well. They are great for some tracking scenes during the extended car chase and there’s one moment where a police car goes flying off a pile of rock and gravel for absolutely no reason other than capturing the shot of the camera gliding under the car while it’s airborne. The problem isn’t those shots exist, it’s that they are the primary focus of the movie and at a certain point it’s just redundant. Camera motion does not equal action. That is an important distinction to make and the primary reason why the runtime was so bloated. A solid 20-30 minutes of repetitive shots and needless B-roll could have been left on the editing room floor.
In the end, I had to ask myself, “Was this movie trying to be bad on purpose?” On the one hand, it’s having fun and is at least partially self-aware. It’s a heist movie where the heist goes hilariously wrong, for a stupid reason, right out of the gates and many other obstacles could have been easily avoided. And Danny is supposed to be an elite bank robber who’s on the FBI’s most-wanted list, yet he fumbles the simplest of things. However, Bay plays his hand earnestly when it comes to the plot. There is some humor interjected, often painfully but sometimes effectively, but he’s asking the audience to take the story seriously. You can’t have it both despite trying to hide that disparity behind an abundance of explosions, car crashes, and gunfire.
Recommendation: If you are a fan of Bay’s visual language this may be the best example of it. Seeing it in IMAX or maybe even 4DX may play a substantial role in your perception.
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