In a world where most action movies are associated with an existing franchise and thrive on computer-generated effects and characters, “Ambulance”— with its confined setting and small cast and mostly practical effects, a film that is constantly going so fast and so hard it feels like everyone involved must have been snorting coke behind the scenes— is a welcome respite. Yes, I just referred to a movie directed by Michael Bay is actually a “welcome respite.” I’m admittedly maybe not the best judge of Bay’s filmography; I’ve skipped almost all of his movies since the third “Transformers” film so thoroughly broke me, and even his much-maligned previous movie, 2019’s “6 Underground,” has been sitting in my Netflix queue since it premiered. But with “Ambulance,” a remake of a 2005 Danish film, Bay’s usual themes and stylistic touches, which are often critiqued as weaknesses, are played as strengths. “Ambulance” is ugly and dumb, but also commits to a hilarious sense of absurdity which, combined with a strong cast and well-staged, explosive action sequences, results in an insanely entertaining movie that will go down as one of Bay’s best.
The premise of “Ambulance” centers around two adoptive brothers. Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an overtly patriotic war veteran with a baby and a wife, Amy (Moses Ingram) who needs an expensive surgery. Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a long-time criminal following in the path of his father who ropes Will into joining in on a $32 million bank heist. Things go south, and their escape results in Will and Danny hijacking an ambulance carrying EMT Cam (Eiza González), who arrived on the scene to treat a downed officer.
It takes a minute for “Ambulance” to establish the characters and really get going, but once it does, the rest of the movie— essentially one long chase around Los Angeles as Will and Danny attempt to evade the LAPD and FBI pursuing them— never lets up. That’s not to say that there is a lot to these characters (there isn’t) or that the actors behind them are turning in good performances (they aren’t). Cam is a welcome departure from the leading ladies typical of Bay’s movies; she’s never objectified and she’s resourceful, although her main point of conflict— the fact that she emotionally detaches herself from her profession, and the hostage situation prompting her to open up those feelings— is sort of stale and predictable. And there’s still some laughable male chauvinism on display: in a phone conversation toward the end of the film, the criminally underused Ingram says to Mateen’s Will that she’s proud of him, not just for taking care of his family, but “for being a man.” The brotherly relationship between Danny and Will that is central to the film, however, isn’t played as overly macho. Will is torn between wanting to help his family, be present for his brother, and his objections to Danny’s line of work. It’s clear, meanwhile, that Danny cares for Will, but he’s also just insane. Gyllenhaal exhibits boundless energy in the role, talking fast, yelling, moving around a lot and making rash decisions. His presence is the secret sauce that makes “Ambulance” such a treat, and it’s easy to imagine the movie not being as palatable without him.
Even Bay’s filmmaking techniques become a little less nauseating to watch as the film progresses. The weird canted angles and unnecessarily shaky camera give way to some stomach-turning, sweeping drone shots around the city once the chase begins. Shooting during the pandemic required some restrictions that minimized the movie’s scope (at least compared to Bay’s past films) in a way that actually works. Much of the action is set in the interior of the ambulance, and that claustrophobic space is where the most tension is to be found, not just from the captor/hostage dynamic but from the fraught relationship between the brothers and everyone’s attempts to keep the wounded officer alive. “Ambulance” becomes a little less exciting when we venture outside the titular vehicle for the requisite huddles between the authorities tracking them down, but not enough to slow down the movie as a whole. A chase between the ambulance and a helicopter in the LA River toward the end of the movie caps the mayhem in the most beautifully chaotic way possible.
“Ambulance” is also really funny. Not when it attempts to take on humorous banter; the dialogue is too poorly written for any of that to feel less than forced. But the visual gags are a riot, like during the robbery when Danny asks one of his goons why he would wear birkenstocks to a burglary; every time we see that guy afterward, he’s slipping and sliding on the floor during their getaway. And some of the situations that arise later on, and the characters’ solutions to them, are too absurd not to be hilarious. Sure, “Ambulance” takes itself a little seriously at times, like during its overblown climax, but it never does so too much for it to stop being fun. I’m not going to pretend “Ambulance” is a masterpiece when it isn’t even technically a very good movie, but it’s great to see an action movie that fires along with the energy of a lot of people being given a lot of money to go crazy. This is Bayhem at its finest.
“Ambulance” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 136 minutes. Rated R.