Review: Can Michael Bay save the blockbuster? Nutso ‘Ambulance’ is his best in decades
Is Michael Bay feeling OK? Has anyone checked his blood pressure recently? Offered the man a nice cup of camomile and verbena? These are legitimate questions to ask, as one emerges punch-drunk, blinded by lens flare and dripping with second-hand testosterone transfer, from “Ambulance,” his latest — and by the standards of his 2000s output, best — assault on the occipital lobe.
Just to watch this deliriously dumb actioner is an amber-threat-level event best avoided by those with pacemakers or PhDs; imagine actually making it. Probably wise that it is set in the titular emergency response vehicle, ensuring easy access during shooting to defibrilllators and tongue depressors. Because the issue of Bay continuing in the rudest of health is not merely idle chit-chat. With this noisy, nonsensical, nutso movie careening, crazy-eyed onto a cinematic freeway otherwise choked with interchangeably airless superhero properties, this most inessential of blockbuster filmmakers has suddenly proved himself weirdly valuable. Mr. Bay, please get your thyroid checked out, because apparently, we need you.
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“Ambulance” is based on a Danish thriller, in the sense that Bay has taken that film’s lean little premise — about bank-robbing brothers commandeering an ambulance that also contains an EMT and her dying patient — put it on a protein-and-steroid diet and sent it to the gym to bulk up till its veins pop.
Less care was taken beefing up the screenplay (adapted by Chris Fedak), but one hardly comes to a Michael Bay movie for the Wildean wordplay. To give you some idea, the wittiest exchange (apart from a genuinely delightful interlude scored to Christopher Cross’ “Sailing) is a labored bit about one of the heist crew (Devan Chandler Long) looking so like “Braveheart”-era Mel Gibson that Jake Gyllenhaal’s Danny insists on calling him “Mel Gibson.” It’s particularly baffling given Long looks nothing like Gibson, and is actually a ringer for MMA fighter Conor McGregor, but that would be a reference too up-to-date for “Ambulance,” which, even when it refers immodestly to Bay’s own back catalogue, name checks “The Rock” and “Bad Boys” rather than anything from this millennium.
Danny is the wildcard adoptive brother of straight-edged Army vet Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, making light work of a rather 2D good-guy role), whose wife is in dire need of a life-saving treatment, which their health insurance will not cover.
Thus Will turns to Danny on the very day — wouldn’t you know it — that Danny is planning to rob a local bank and is one man short for the job. By appealing to their shared past (the Will-Danny relationship is steeped in brotherly Baythos, and damned if it doesn’t kind of work) Will gets talked into it, but the heist goes awry early when lovelorn Officer Zach (Jackson White) pushes his way into the bank at exactly the wrong moment and gets shot for his trouble. Luckily for him, unfeasibly attractive EMT Cam (Eiza Gonzalez), a.k.a. the “best paramedic in town” — and certainly the one with the most unsmudgeably luscious lipgloss — is nearby, but when Danny and Will need a getaway vehicle for themselves and all their stolen money, they commandeer her ambulance with Cam and a dying Zach still in it.
Cam — gratifyingly, by some distance the least ogled of Bay’s female leads — valiantly tries to keep Zach alive, which Danny and Will soon realize is in their best interests too: The pursing police, led by Garret Dillahunt’s Capt. Monroe and Keir O’Donnell’s FBI Agent Clark, are much less likely to simply blow the vehicle up if they know that “one of their own” is alive inside it.
Don’t worry if this makes “Ambulance” sound a bit copagandist — you’d be hard pushed to find a coherent political agenda in a movie this anarchically dedicated to ensuring no one scene has any bearing on the one that came before. It’s weird that a film so thuddingly simplistic in its two-hour-plus arc should be so utterly mystifying on a moment-to-moment basis, but that’s “Bayhem” for ya.
There’s a lot of zooming about (it’s never exactly clear where to) as medical complications ensure Cam has to improvise a grisly surgery on the go, Will has to give blood while driving and Danny has to shout and bug his eyes a lot (which Gyllenhaal is great at, like a very handsome Angry Bird). A whole lot more characters are briefly introduced, given one defining characteristic, like “wears Birkenstocks,” “is gay,” “has a dog” or “constantly bitches about his wife” and then just as quickly dispensed with. But then, mostly the actors seem hired less for their roles than for their agility in stepping nimbly away when one of Bay and director of photography Roberto De Angelis’ drone-mounted cameras comes barreling at them with the unstoppable force of a surface-to-air missile.
But as lunatic as the filmmaking is, and as much as Bay’s style tries to divorce it from actual physics entirely, it’s also reassuringly real: There’s something almost quaint about knowing that when the battered van is speeding down the concrete channels of the L.A. River, being pursued by two police choppers and a kamikaze squadron of police cars, they are actual vehicles, going actually fast in an actual place. It’s so nice to see money inexcusably wasted this way, rather than on the inflated salaries of movie stars halfway through their nine-picture contracts, waving their arms around in front of a green screen. The CGI here is minimal, and Bay recently clarified comments he made about its quality, saying there are, in fact, only two shots he doesn’t like in the whole movie. Two! Considering it contains roughly 12 billion shots, that’s a pretty good average.
So “Ambulance” is not good, exactly. Still it is an enjoyable, oddly inspiring reminder of how many more flavors not-good used to come in, in the olden days, back when we had the luxury of regarding Michael Bay’s brand of adrenalized, lobotomized moviemaking as a menace to blockbuster cinema, rather than — gulp — one of its potential saviors.
Rated: R, for intense violence, bloody images and language throughout
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: In general release
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