Yes, it’s true (and we still can’t believe we wrote that headline above): Ambulance, the new action thriller from none other than director Michael Bay, might just be the divisive filmmaker’s best effort in this century.
After spending a decade in the cinematic hell that was his Transformers series, where he churned out one unwatchable, incoherent, headache-inducing pile of crap after another—with a couple of breaks for the modestly better Pain and Gain in 2013, the politically dumbed-down 13 Hours in 2016, and the tediously awful 6 Underground in 2019—Bay has produced his most consistently enjoyable movie since 1996’s The Rock.
Now, make no mistake, this is still a Michael Bay movie; a lot of the action is still edited as if he threw the footage in a blender and put it on high, and the pile-up of plot turns and over-the-top acting in the third act alone threatens to send the whole thing spinning off the rails and careening down the side of a hill in flames.
But somehow—thanks to a sturdier-than-usual narrative from screenwriter Chris Fedak (adapted from the 2005 Danish film Ambulancen), and grounded, heartfelt performances from Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and especially Eiza Gonzalez (Godzilla vs. Kong)—this is a two-hour mad dash that won’t have you regretting the decision to sit down and watch.
Abdul-Mateen plays Will Sharp, a decorated Marine who has hit on hard times since returning from active duty. A job is hard to find, and he and his wife Amy (Moses Ingram) have a toddler. Worse, they need $230,000 so that Amy can get surgery for cancer. Will can’t even get Amy’s operation covered through his insurance, which forces him into a desperate measure: asking his wealthy adopted brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for the money.
Except Danny isn’t just wealthy; he runs a criminal operation that he inherited from the brothers’ late father, a career that Will deliberately stepped away from. Almost before he can comprehend what’s happening, and because this is the only way he can get the money from Danny, Will finds himself roped into helping out on a $32 million bank heist in downtown LA that will provide Will and his family with more money that they ever dreamed of, and which Danny promises will go off without a hitch.
Of course the robbery goes pear-shaped, with the LAPD’s Special Investigation Section arriving on the scene and taking out most of Danny’s crew. Luckily, Danny and Will escape in an ambulance with an injured cop named Zach (Jackson White) and a no-nonsense EMT named Cam (Gonzalez) as hostages. Zach has been accidentally shot, and as the cops pursue the ambulance at high speed, the only thing preventing them from shooting the crap out of the hijacked vehicle is that Cam has been coerced into keeping Zach alive by an increasingly unhinged Danny.
The Bayhem soon mounts up, with low-flying helicopters, massive amounts of ammunition, exploding and crashing cars, a hot-headed SIS commander (Garrett Dillahunt), and a locked-and-loaded rival crime gang all getting mixed into the director’s special sauce.
While the action is relentless and a bit numbing as one would expect, Ambulance works best when Bay jerks the camera around the inside of the runaway ambulance. The escalating tension between Danny and Will, Cam’s cool-under-fire attempts to keep them calm and keep Zach alive (including one intense cover-your-eyes, in-the-moment surgical procedure), and everyone’s dawning realization that their chances of all getting out of this alive are dimming with every second, provides the suspense and humanity that keeps the film gripping.
Gyllenhaal is playing to the bleachers here: his Danny starts out like he’s just snorted a pound of coke and takes off from there, threatening, screaming at, and cajoling Cam even as he complains about his cashmere sweater getting ruined and calls his assistant to check on a delivery for his kid’s birthday party. “We’re not the bad guys!” he yells at one point without any self-awareness at all.
Gyllenhaal might need reining in, but Abdul-Mateen and Gonzalez are on point. Abdul-Mateen, coming off solid work in The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Candyman (less so in The Matrix Resurrections), projects the conflict between Will’s quiet desperation and his split loyalties well. This makes his everyman soldier a genuine gravitational center for the piece.
But it’s Gonzalez who is its heart, with Cam pushing all her own frailties and issues aside to focus on the matter in front of her. She’s no damsel in distress; she has agency (even though she’s a hostage); and, best of all, while Gonzalez is a beautiful woman, she’s not presented as the typical Bay eye candy in any way, shape or form—an achievement of sorts for the director who used to leer endlessly over the likes of Megan Fox and Isabel Lucas.
(There’s also a gay FBI agent, played by Keir O’Donnell, who is also refreshingly shorn of most of the stereotypes we might have found in earlier Bay films—one slightly campy therapy scene aside—and ends up being a tough counterpoint to Dillahunt’s militant SIS leader. Could Bay actually be evolving?)
By the time Ambulance comes to its tumultuous finale, the film starts to wear out its welcome, and one starts to recognize the same downtown LA streets that the ambulance keeps careening down (Bay shot the whole picture downtown, making it look like a crumbling dystopia, but it feels like everyone is driving around the same five or six blocks). Nevertheless, the final payoff is remarkably satisfying, a tad moving, even, and there’s a sense that one has actually been told a story, instead of watching a random series of frenzied action sequences stitched together in the editing bay.
In the Bayverse, that’s known as progress.
Ambulance opens in theaters this Friday, April 8.