movie review

Ambulance Is the Kind of Thrill Ride Theaters Were Made For

Does the characterization work? Not all the time. But is the film fun? Hell, yeah. Photo: Andrew Cooper/Universal Studios

Ambulance, the latest from director Michael Bay, is a film powered by the jittery force of will and blissful confidence that comes with doing cocaine. Lots of cocaine. If you told me that before every swooning shot setup or bombastic line reading from co-lead Jake Gyllenhaal, people on set dived into mountains of cocaine, I would thoroughly and utterly believe you. This is exactly the kind of ridiculousness I can get behind. It deserves far more love than it got at the box office its opening weekend for putting to the fore the pleasure principle too many filmmakers in Hollywood have cast aside for self-aware quips and broadly connected universes — though I do appreciate the Ambulance characters who quote and reference previous Bay powerhouses Bad Boys and The Rock, meaning Bay exists in the universe of his own film.

Ambulance has been dubbed “small” by Bay standards because of its mid- budget cost of $40 million. For reference, his previous Netflix film, 6 Underground, starring sentient ingrown hair Ryan Reynolds, cost $150 million. But don’t let that amount of money fool you into thinking Ambulance is anything less than a deliciously profane, bonkers thrill that puts audience gratification above things like common sense and characterization. This is a film built to satisfy — teasing laughter and shock out of you at a clip. The intensity starts early. Screenwriter Chris Fedak doesn’t waste time; he efficiently sets up the crime and the trio of stars powering the narrative, relying first on amber-hued childhood flashbacks accompanied by a treacly score, then by the charisma of Gyllenhaal (playing Danny Sharp) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (playing Will Sharp) as adoptive brothers on very different sides of the law who share a harrowing adolescence thanks to their bank-robbing psychopath of a father, in whose steps the former walks. Will is at the end of his line. A war veteran and dad himself, he is desperate to get the money necessary to help his wife, Amy (Moses Ingram), pay for an experimental treatment for her hazily defined health issues. He turns to his criminal brother for a job that quickly goes left.

What starts as a secure bank robbery quickly becomes a pulsating chase through the streets of Los Angeles with the tough-broad EMT Cam (Eiza González) trying to keep alive the admittedly annoying cop (Jackson White) whom Will shot in a fit of anxiety. The film builds its twists on moments of luck and ingenuity, roping in a dazzling array of characters — from the cartel members Danny relies on to evade the authorities to FBI agent Anson Clark (Keir O’Donnell), whom Danny went to college with after his father urged him to take criminal-profiling classes in order to better understand the minds that would one day be eager to thwart him. Ambulance builds its emotional life on the ragged link between Danny and Will, juxtaposing their differences at every turn. Danny is beguiling with a hair-trigger temper. Will is stoic and caring, disposed to put his life on the line for his very own hostages.

The characterization doesn’t always sing, especially when you clock the discomfiting exaltation of the armed forces that anchors the story or the fact that the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen doesn’t always hit. When Cam is introduced, it becomes clear just what kind of female character we’re faced with. She’s an EMT who can lovingly aid a young girl with a fence spoke piercing her abdomen, as the groan of metal on metal fills the air, and then want to eat enchiladas in the next breath. She’s rough-hewn and no-nonsense in that effortlessly beautiful way expected of actresses of this range — relatively young, pretty in a way that seems algorithmically designed — who have yet to prove what they can do. Here, she’s gentle when she really needs to be steely. But at its best, Ambulance is brimming with a visual brio that infuses its car crashes, chases, and bevy of explosions with delight.

The continued diminishment of mid-budget films in Hollywood in recent decades is often lamented, particularly for how integral they can be to the development and refinement of a star’s image. But much more has been lost than that. Consider the wealth of character actors in films such as the raucous Keanu Reeves action flick Speed to erotic thrillers like The Last Seduction. Bay and casting director Denise Chamian understand how to build a supporting cast. The film is colored with a variety of excellent character actors with strong turnout, especially Garret Dillahunt as the cunning police captain Monroe and Olivia Stambouliah as the electric smart-mouth Lieutenant Dzaghig, whose line readings got an enthusiastic response from my theater’s audience. Coupled with the surprisingly high body count, Ambulance hits what it needs to hit: visceral thrills, copious amounts of blood and violence (without an overreliance on shoddy CGI), practical effects, and a sincere interest in putting its characters through absolute hell. So when a Birkenstock-wearing robber gets decimated, his legs run over, only for him to look down and ask what the hell happened with the sort of nonchalance of someone acknowledging the pickles were forgotten on their burger, you can’t help but giggle. But your eyes — and the camera, guided by kinetic cinematographer Roberto De Angelis — always fall back on Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen.

As Danny, Gyllenhaal is giving hypermasculine drag. This isn’t new for him. He’s an actor who truly loves to toggle between more experimental art-house fare and big-budget extravaganzas. He’s a wry, flexible performer I have sincerely enjoyed over the decades, but whenever he’s in action of this ilk, it’s as if he needs to desperately remind us he can be a man’s man, throwing off the more feminine or complex dynamics of films such as Wildlife and Enemy, which allow him to sit within a more pluripotent masculinity. Here, Gyllenhaal is going full masc. In his hands, Danny’s charms quickly curdle into selfishness and sharp-edged violence. Still, he’s funny as hell in the role — chewing apart sentences, spitting out one-liners, using his physicality to seduce people into a state of fear, moving with ecstatic grace. He’s giving pure, unabashed gonzo energy. When he says, “It’s not that simple, Will. We’re not the bad guys,” we’re meant to look at his character warily. Yet Bay doesn’t account for the fact that more than a few in the audience of this film (myself included) couldn’t give less of a damn about the cops. It’s the criminals we root for as they flout the system and put a middle finger in the air to propriety.

On the other hand, Abdul-Mateen has been saddled with a character built together with stoicism, a good heart, and the reverence Bay clearly holds for the armed forces. Casting Abdul-Mateen in the role brings to the fore a host of interlocking issues, namely the way Black folks are forced into systems that support the very fascism and imperialism that constrain their lives on the home front. Bay doesn’t wrestle with this dynamic. Hell, he doesn’t even realize it’s there. So when it becomes clear that Danny and Will’s fate is either death or prison, the political discomfort becomes glaring. Here is a Black man trying to aid his family after the government he’s upheld discarded him only to end up a part of an even more damning system that stains this country’s hands with the blood of untold Black and brown folks. Watching Abdul-Mateen — whether he’s belting out a song with Gyllenhaal to burn off some of their anxious trepidation or punching the hell out of his onscreen brother with the sort of aplomb that immediately piques the interest of the authorities nipping at their heels — I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly he wants from his career. In HBO’s resplendent series Watchmen, he plays Doctor Manhattan with a tender heart and prowess. In the silly bombast of Aquaman, he plays my perennial favorite, Black Manta, with sneering force. More recently in Matrix Resurrections, he takes a spin on Morpheus that is self-aware and brazenly confident. He’s an actor with supremely lupine physical ingenuity, the kind of performer who walks into the room and easily charms the eye. But what rooms does he desire to walk into? What heights does he want to reach? Despite his skill and profile, Abdul-Mateen isn’t consistently taking on roles that put his power in the spotlight.

But that’s not why you’re reading this review. You’re wondering, Is Ambulance the kind of fun worth trotting out to the theater for? Hell, yeah, it is. Where do I begin? With the ecstatic color palette? The glossy reverence for a car being flipped several times in the air as if dancing of its own accord? The sheer insanity of the crashes wrought with balletic grace? How about those drone shots? Bay relies on the vertiginous joy of overhead drone shots dangling on the precipice of skyscrapers and atop other squat buildings before swooping down and tracking an eye on the cataclysmic action happening below. This swooning visual style is used again and again to great effect. Another great example of the film’s visual force? When Danny screams that Will is in fact his real brother before they unleash a hail of bullets in slo-mo on a cartel boss and his underlings, spinning in a circle to pick off their rivals. What more can be said but this: Now that’s cinema, baby.

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Ambulance Is the Kind of Thrill Ride Theaters Were Made For