‘Ambulance,’ the latest adrenaline shot from Michael Bay, America’s broheim auteur

The GO-GO-GO maximalist Michael Bay is Hollywood’s adrenaline shot to the heart—jolting, extreme, wildly excessive. And, like any intracardiac injection, it’s ultimately bad medicine. But what a rush! How apt, then, that his latest cardiac arrest, Ambulance, is fundamentally a medical procedural as only Bay can deliver: it’s a STAT emergency surgery operation wrapped in a bank robbery, a high-speed car chase, an estranged sibling drama, and a political critique of how America mistreats its own military veterans. But don’t rupture that spleen!

Ambulance is both too much and not enough, which describes every Michael Bay movie ever made. Come for the immersive high-octane cinematic overstimulation, stay because Bay has pummeled you into submission. The director of ’90s bloviations like The Rock, Bad Boys, and Armageddon—as well as five Transformers movies, all CGI orgies of robot-on-robot violence—works in a dramatic shorthand larded with cornball dad-joke patter, and creates baroque chaos best described as Bayhem. His signature choreography of action-from-every-direction is so recognizably, uniquely bonkers, and his heroes and heroines are such testosterone-drenched alpha dogs that they saturate Bay’s output with a uniquely signature vision. He’s America’s broheim auteur.

AMBULANCE  ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Chris Fedak
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eiza González
Running time: 136 mins

The core of this Los Angeles-set film is the relationship between ex-Marine Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his estranged older brother, shady crook Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal). The Sharps adopted Will, and their now-dead criminal father L.T. was, as one character explains, “a bona fide psychotic.” So Will signed up for the armed forces to defend the country and find a moral compass. But his tours in Afghanistan left him disillusioned, and his return to civilian life has been financially fraught. His wife Amy (Moses Ingram) needs unspecified “experimental surgery,” although she seems to mostly spend her time cradling a baby while telling Will how much she believes in him.

Strapped and desperate, Will goes to Danny for financial aid. Good thing, too, because that’s the day that Danny happens to be pulling off a high-stakes $32 million bank heist involving a half-dozen dubiously qualified henchmen. He’ll give Will the money to save his wife if he helps with the robbery. Apparently Will can just join them without any prior knowledge of the plan, which is really convenient. Bay then quickly cuts to a jacked-up montage of Danny and his men strutting in slo-mo, so they all must be professionals.

The robbery goes sideways, many people fly through plate glass windows, and cars crash into each other while swooping cameras capture all the carnage. Danny’s on-the-fly escape plan for him and Will is to hijack an ambulance with a bleeding-out police officer who they shot. If he dies, then they’re cop killers, so they have to keep him alive while also trying to shake the dozens of cop cars chasing after them. There’s really no off-ramp, metaphorically or literally, once they get going, although Danny has an idea that involves an underworld kingpin, a lot of decoy vehicles, and an underpass at the 105/405 freeway interchange. “We’re a locomotive and we don’t stop!” screams Danny.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal sweat the big stuff in Michael Bay’s ‘Ambulance’.

Because Michael Bay never earns emotion in his movies, he peppers us with signifiers of tender resonance: slow-motion flashbacks of Will and Danny as kids playing in a yard serve as their backstory. Teary-eyed FaceTime conversations between Will and his wife show how devoted they are to each other. Sunlight-dappled moments and swelling orchestral drones frame the knee-jerk Hallmark heartstrings. It’s a fill-in-the-blanks approach to the human condition.

Ambulance has so many other characters that Bay reduces them to one-line descriptors and wardrobe choices. There’s police officer Zach (Jackson White), the rookie just out of the academy who ends up with a bullet in his belly, and Camille (Eiza González), the ace paramedic who can keep anyone alive for 20 minutes and says things like “It’s just a job.”

You also have Captain Monroe (Garrett Dillahunt), the top cop who’s so cocksure that he shows up wearing a Trojan sweatshirt, frayed baseball cap, and military fatigues, and even brings along a mastiff called Nitro. There’s the shady Chicano criminal mastermind named Papi (Adolfo Marintez). And there’s gay FBI agent Anson Clark (Keir O’Donnell), who abruptly leaves a marriage counseling session after getting a text that says MASSIVE BANK ROBBERY. “You’re so rude,” snipes his bitchy spurned husband. This, by the way, seems like Bay’s rare stab at LGBTQ representation.

“You better slow down, we’re about to do surgery!” yells Camille as she plunges her hands into a man’s chest cavity while videochatting doctors give her pointers from a golf course. Ambulance is mostly just sustained cinematic trauma, but much of its coked-up mise-en-scene glory is weirdly exhilarating. Whether it’s Danny and Will sharing ear buds so they can chillax to Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” during a highway pursuit, the bank robber who wears Birkenstocks, or the special agent who suddenly reveals specific intel on Danny because “we used to be friends,” Ambulance is rife with preposterous curveballs that convey a genuine, and hilarious, sense of surprise. “It’s like a cross between a chess game and a cage match,” says Captain Monroe. Exactly.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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