Michael Bay. Just the mention of the director’s name has stirred up preconceived notions in the minds of cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike since he hit the scene in the mid-90s. The one-two punch of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor solidified the tropes that are now inextricably linked with the filmmaker, codified in a style popularly called “Bayhem”. Bay’s frequent uses of melodramatic dialogue and epic, saturated landscapes, along with his fetishization of the military and of women, are just a few trademarks of his often-replicated technique. His latest film Ambulance is as action-packed as his other work and maintains signature trademarks of his approach — intense close-ups, circular camera movement, excessive lampposts — but includes breakthroughs for the director that allow it to instantly rank among his finest work.
The film centers around two adoptive brothers who have gone their separate ways since their father’s passing years ago. Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a former Marine fighting to care for his cancer-stricken wife and newborn son as the medical bills become more than his one-off jobs can pay. His brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) has taken after their father’s life of crime, knocking off banks while fronting a car detailing shop in Los Angeles. While in the middle of asking Danny for money, Will makes a snap decision to assist with a lucrative heist, which goes swimmingly until young LAPD officer Zach (Jackson White) unknowingly interrupts their plan. The unraveling of said plan involves Zach sustaining a bullet injury and the Sharp brothers hijacking an ambulance with EMT Cam (Eiza González) and the injured Zach onboard as hostages.
From the outset, Ambulance sets up its characters and their motivations with more breadth and depth than your typical action thriller. Screenwriter Chris Fedak taps into the frustrations with medical bureaucracy to which many people can relate, especially the past couple years, and Abdul-Mateen does an excellent job selling it. Gyllenhaal presents his character as the sort of cool operator who is paradoxically the most anxious person in the room at any moment, while González portrays her paramedic as a consummate professional who is enviably heroic under pressure. The scenario that puts the rookie cop in that bank at the wrong time is loaded with layers of dramatic irony and social pressure that makes the situation tense and enthralling before the rubber even meets the road.
Don’t worry: the action does come and when it does, it rarely takes any breaks. Not since Mad Max: Fury Road has there been a sustained vehicular battle this utterly engrossing and casually inventive in the way that it interjects escalating variables into the predicament. With DP Roberto De Angelis, Bay ups his aerial camerawork game by use of roving drones that dive-bomb and zig-zag across LA with both speed and precision. Put bluntly: these are exhilarating shots that wouldn’t have been possible in an action movie ten, or perhaps even five, years ago. But the cinematic fundamentals of sound action moviemaking are also present throughout, underscored by editor Pietro Scalia’s adept sense of visual timing and storytelling priority.
Bay has been charged with having a stunted and sophomoric sense of humor that accompanies his seeming lack of self-awareness but there are signs in Ambulance that he may have at least temporarily overcome these obstacles. Two police officers reference two other Michael Bay movies in a five-minute span, the second joke coinciding with the low-angle hero shot so overdone that I’ll chalk up to knowing parody rather than self-own. Gyllenhaal also rips off some diabolically sarcastic one-liners with sadistic glee, while a police captain played by Garret Dillahunt does some excellent age-juxtaposed verbal sparring with other officers. It may not be the most sophisticated humor in the world but it’s a marked step-up from Bumblebee peeing gasoline on John Turturro 15 years ago. Prior to Ambulance, Transformers was the last Bay film I had seen in a theater but his latest is clear evidence that I shouldn’t wait another 15 for my next appointment.
Score – 4.5/5
New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, starring Jude Law and Eddie Redmayne, is the latest entry in the Wizarding World franchise that finds members of the British Ministry of Magic battling dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s army.
Father Stu, starring Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson, is a based-on-a-true-story drama which follows the life story of Father Stuart Long, a boxer who turns to Catholic priesthood after suffering from an inflammatory muscle disease.
Everything Everywhere All at Once, starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, is a sci-fi comedy about an aging Chinese immigrant who is swept up in an cosmic adventure where she alone can save the world by exploring other universes connecting with the lives she could have led.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup