Michael Bay’s latest action thriller, Ambulance, can’t decide if it’s silly or serious – but it doesn’t matter when it’s this much fun.
Just when you think Michael Bay’s Ambulance is a serious action film, it surprises you with just how funny it is. The opening plays it straight-faced, with Yahya Abdul Mateen II’s desperate Will Sharp trying to find the means to pay his wife’s medical bills. Against his better judgement, he turns to his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), a career criminal, for help. From that moment on, the film is an absolute blast.
Instead of a loan, Danny proposes a huge bank heist worth $16 million. Collaborating on such a thing is hard for the two brothers, who in terms of personality are night and day. Abdul Mateen II grounds the entire film and plays an honourable, serious, man. Meanwhile Gyllenhaal goes around shouting things like “this is cashmere!” when things don’t go his way. His expensive jumper getting dirty obviously being one of those moments.
When the brothers’ heist goes horribly wrong, they end up stealing an ambulance as a getaway vehicle. One with a wounded cop (Jackson White) and an EMT, Cam Thompson (Eiza González), inside. From then on, Ambulance is just one long, explosive chase scene. The plot might seem a bit bare from the outside, but the actors inside the ambulance are what holds the whole thing together.
Gyllenhaal particularly is not afraid to give a performance that verges on crazy. Danny is characterised by constant quips – he clearly thinks he’s extremely smart and funny, whether he is or not. But Gyllenhaal just exudes sheer charisma as he gives the over-the-top performance that this movie requires – he yells most of his lines, but his tone and incredibly expressive face lend a lot of humour to the situation.
Danny and Will are of course being chased by the police and FBI for the entire runtime. These characters can’t escape the silliness of the script, either. Keir O’Donnell plays FBI Agent Anson Clark, who’s inexplicably introduced in a scene where he attends marriage counselling with his husband. After being accused of being married to the job, he makes a swift exit when he’s called in to deal with the runaway ambulance.
The way this film deals with its characters’ backstories is baffling. It gives tiny snippets like this, that in the grand scheme of things are irrelevant. It also inserts exposition through random one-liners that come completely out of the blue. “I got addicted to speed”, González’s character comes out with, seemingly at random, to explain why she’s an EMT and not a qualified doctor. Is this meant to be a serious moment? Probably. But it’s so unexpected and incongruous with the action happening around it that it’s impossible to treat it that way. Sometimes you just sit back and think “what?”.
In this sense, it feels like Ambulance isn’t sure what kind of action movie it really is. Whether it wants to be serious (which the attempt at giving its characters serious backstories would suggest) or whether it’s just silly fun (which is what it turns out to be, even with the more serious moments).
As you might expect, the Michael Bay-isms really help with making it the latter. You go in expecting at least one explosion, and Ambulance delivers. There’s a lot of frenetic movement as well – if you like a static camera, tough luck. It’s almost always moving around, even when it doesn’t need to be. Right at the beginning, when Danny convinces Will to pull off the heist, the camera is literally spinning in circles around Gyllenhaal to the point it becomes dizzying. That’s where it got too much for me. Even an action film is allowed to have slow moments, especially when it’s two people just having a conversation. There’s no need to try to speed it up with crazy camerawork.
But Bay also seems to be having fun making this movie. Near the start, there’s a duo of police officers who exist purely to make references to Bay’s filmography. It’s not performed in a cheeky, self aware way, either. The two of them invoke the names of Bad Boys and The Rock in conversation with completely straight faces, and it’s a fun touch.
Admittedly, Ambulance loses its way a bit towards the end. A third party group of characters is introduced that doesn’t necessarily need to be there, and it seems like an attempt to pad the film out. Nonetheless, it builds to the big exciting set piece that an action film needs, and remains exciting despite faltering.
Regardless of what kind of film Ambulance is trying to be, it ends up being just good fun. Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul Mateen II are great, the plot is ridiculous in the best of ways, and there’s all the action, suspense, and explosions you could want.
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