Never let it be said that a Michael Bay movie shows any restraint. Even his smallest films that this grand larger than life scope. So by now, most should all be familiar with his storytelling and visual sense of style – the dirt and grime textures, close-up shots, chaotic cuts, and turning grounded stories into something explosive. So, there’s a lot of that in “Ambulance,” a heist thriller gone wrong turn confined police pursuit through the bottleneck streets and freeways of LA. Sure enough, Bay’s latest has all the hallmarks of a Bayhem film, with even more insane camera shots thanks to the use of drones. So while there may be plenty of chaos and confusion and a lack of a coherent story or any character development, somehow, it comes together for an entertaining popcorn flick.
There’s no real sense in getting into the plot or story since there hardly is one. Attempts to find any nuance, subtlety, or humanity are ultimately futile, considering there is very little of that in this film. But what you can find is plenty of action and the gall to reference Bay’s filmography within a Bay film. For instance, a timid rookie cop trying to ask a bank teller out on a date and his training officer encouraging him by quoting a line from “The Rock.” There are even references to “Bad Boys” and “Watchmen.” It’s not precisely flippant because it is the kind of meta-humor that can only work in a film like this.
So getting from point a to point IDGAF is pretty much the trajectory for any Bay film. “Ambulance” opens with a montage of two kids playing around in the streets of LA. It doesn’t bother with giving any semblance of details about the nature of their relationship, nor does it seem to care. Although more information is shared later, it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, especially in a film like this. So it flashforwards to decorated veteran Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who struggles to hold down a stable job so that he can pay for his wife’s life-saving but costly surgery that his insurance doesn’t cover. As a result, he has to freelance himself. Until we learn from his wife that his brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), has called from a block number. She warns Will that he should not be speaking to him. Though much of that history happens off-screen, the exchange provides audiences with just the right amount of exposition to help us understand the state of the current brotherly relationship.
We learn how Danny has continued the family business as a bank robber who has pulled off over 30 heists in his career. With that kind of success rate and the posh lifestyle that he’s living now with the fancy Krueig coffee machines and lines of vintage cars, one might think that enough is enough. But, of course, this being a Bay film, restraint is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Danny convinces Will to join his crew using manic charm and high-energy enthusiasm. Little do they know that things go wrong, and things quickly go from heist to LA street shootout that looks oddly like a Michael Bay love letter to “Heat.” Soon, the two find themselves carjacking an Ambulance driven by Cam (Eiza Gonzalez), the best EMT in LA who has a rep for going through a constant rotation of partners.
As this goes on, Bay treats his audience to a wide array of drone shots that spins, swoops, twist, and turn from the sky and down the face of a building or through a freeway underpass.
Trying to follow along and make sense of things while watching Cam and Will stabilizing Officer Zach’s (Jackson White) deteriorating condition is even more difficult. Nevermind comprehending the decisions behind LAPD’s Captain Moore (Garret Dillahunt) and the FBI’s Task Force agent Anson Clark (Keir O’Donnell) make to stop the chase from going on any further. But for the sake of Bayhem, the pursuit goes on, and soon three’s tour around LA looks more like an out-of-control stunt show you’d see in any Universal theme park. And that should be a great selling point.
That lack of cohesion isn’t a bad thing. “Ambulance” goes all-in on the Bayhem, which doesn’t care about the story, character development, or humor. None of the jokes are in service of the story or the action. Instead, they are just brief moments of fun to give us a break from everything. But that may be the case given how the characters operate with a “Speed” mentality. The title vehicle and all of its occupants don’t stop for anything. The humor is haphazardly thrown in without any concern about what it does in service of the story. At one point, we sit in on a couple’s therapy session. At another, we hear Danny and Will sing sailing in an effort to calm down. None of the jokes track or are consistent. But the one thing that does remain constant is Gyllenhaal’s high-strung energy. Gyllenhaal’s energy to the film is comparable to his criminal character, having done massive amounts of cocaine. And at any point, it doesn’t matter whether or not the humor works. You’re still laughing. You’re still watching. And you can’t put down that bucket of popcorn.
While Danny may come off as the bad guy – with his decision to stay on the run instead of giving up – he does have some semblance of humanity as he promises Will that he will get out of this and that he is doing this to help him. Though one of those characteristics overshadows the other, it’s exciting to watch Danny’s unpredictability but still fill the screen with his electric charm.
But if you are trying to find a story, you’d be out of luck considering that “Ambulance” has none of that. There is hardly any follow-through with it as Danny, Will, and Cam demolish the city of LA with their title vehicle without any time or reason to stop. And as the pursuit continues, the film finds ways to add more characters into the mix, none of whom have anything to do with the story but add madness. For instance, Dillahunt’s character brings a dog along during the ordeal and asks his squad to pull back when the dog is in danger. Or how Danny was conveniently one of Clark’s college friends. None of it makes sense, yet Chris Fedak’s script and the Bayhem still manage to draw us without any effort. There’s no sense in resisting it. Just embrace the chaos that comes with “Ambulance.”
And getting these shots are anything but easy. The stunt work heightens the sense of danger and the lives that are at stake whenever the chase goes in directly in the path of pedestrians. Which isn’t easy to get out of whenever it’s in a city as populated as LA. Because it can go from car pursuits on city streets, then jump to the freeways, then head back to the streets, and then find itself in the LA river. And despite the lack of choreography, it’s absolutely fun to see how these cars careen and crash into each other, buildings, and barricades in the way that only Bay can envision.
For what it’s worth, “Ambulance” is pure unfiltered Bayhem, with Bay been let loose to do whatever he wants to get the shot on screen. It’s like an adrenaline rush, and a shock to the system had a baby, and that baby’s first toy was a camera drone. It doesn’t matter how dizzying the shot is. It just looks cool. Add all of the explosions that generally come with a Michael Bay film and Gyllenhaal’s explosive performance, and you’ve got yourself a fine popcorn flick whose action is contained in the streets of LA, giving it a more grounded and belieable feel, and bottled within this one Ambulance, which gives more of an exciting dynamic between the three characters trapped inside. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because like all of these LA car chases, you can’t take your eyes off of it and want to see it to the very end.