Ambulance has a lot of Michael Bay hallmarks — loud action that tends to take precedence over the story, lots of shots at sunrise or sunset, borderline copaganda, editing that’s oftentimes incoherent, and immeasurable collateral damage to the surrounding areas. Those are just par for the course. But what makes Ambulance stand out among his filmography is the way in which he diverts from his usual method of filmmaking — there are no misogynistic or racist comments, there are no leering shots of scantily-clad women, and its emotional core seems to come from a genuinely earnest place. These three seemingly simple divergences work together to create one of the most, if not the most, successful movies of Bay’s entire filmography.
The premise of Ambulance basically amounts to Speed in an ambulance. Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) ropes his brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) into a bank heist which would bring in $32 million, but after things go wrong, the ambulance becomes their impromptu getaway car. But within that ambulance is a rookie police officer who was shot by Will and an EMT who just wants to get the officer to a hospital. If the movie was this alone, it would be thrilling and worth your time — and it is both of those things. But it also has multiple threads of emotional investment that make it worth your investment.
Will is a war veteran who just wants the insurance companies to listen to him so he and his wife can afford her experimental surgery (for what, we don’t know — it only matters that she needs it). But of course, the soldier is undervalued by the system that produced him — another Bay hallmark — and Will decides to contact his brother Danny, a notorious criminal, to lend him the $231,000 that he needs for the surgery. The movie works hard to emphasize that even though Will is involved in a heist, he’s not in the wrong, or if he is, it’s barely. Instead, he was pushed to this by the system and we should have sympathy for him.
And for the most part, the movie is successful at communicating this. He shoots the cop by accident, tries to tone down Danny’s more unhinged tendencies and inclinations, is helpful to the EMT, Cam (Eiza González), in her attempts to save the cop’s life, emphasizes to Danny that he doesn’t want anyone getting hurt, and in general has a sympathetic demeanor. But at the same time, you have to rationalize the film’s collateral damage the same way you do with Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy. They rob a bank with guns, for one thing. And more significantly, as they’re leading a massive chase through the streets of Los Angeles, there are so many explosions, crashes, and gun shots that it becomes impossible to believe that there were no accidental casualties. The film handwaves the carnage by having both the criminals and the government officials chasing them emphasize that it’s not rush hour yet, which, fine. I buy it. It’s a Michael Bay movie; I’m not expecting an airtight script or action without its nitpicks.
Because at the end of the day, this is a two-plus hour rollercoaster that, unlike the latter Transformers movies, you actually want to be on. The 90ish-minute car chase isn’t just a bunch of cars driving fast. No, there are story beats, twists, character reveals, surgeries, paint jobs, and more along the way. But the character moments are really what make Ambulance stand out. You’re rooting for Will and his values to return home safely to his wife and infant son. You’re rooting for Cam, who treats her job emotionlessly, to learn to see the inherent humanity in what she does. You’re rooting for a reconciliation for two brothers with a checkered past.
The film is anchored by the committed lead performances of the three actors in a cramped and claustrophobic ambulance — Abdul-Mateen is relegated to “yelling brother” for a lot of the action scenes, but when he gets his smaller dramatic moments, you buy it completely. I didn’t realize until after the movie that I’ve actually already seen González in a handful of other movies (including Baby Driver and I Care A Lot), but it’s this movie where she really stood out, both in that her performance was memorable and that she stood out from the rest of the cast. She displays a wide range of emotions and mindsets from detached and self-serious, to terrified, to compassionate. She’s the standout in terms of acting ability, while Gyllenhaal is the standout in terms of doing the most acting. He continues to show his ability to be a chameleon and perfectly blend in to whatever the script calls for. A closeted cowboy in Brokeback Mountain? Easy. A stoic detective with rage boiling just under the surface in Prisoners? Oh yeah. A superhero villain in Spider-Man? Heck yes. A bonkers, who-the-heck-knows-what-he’s-doing crazy person in Okja and John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch? A walk in the park. And here, a totally unhinged career criminal whose sanity meter goes down with each passing second? It works for the movie!
Gyllenhaal’s performances works so well because it’s contrasted with Abdul-Mateen’s as his brother. They’re two different people with seemingly two different callings… but they’re siblings. They love each other through thick and thin, no matter what. The film earnestly reckons with what this means, and even surprisingly brings nuance into the conversation. And that sums up what makes Ambulance work so well. It’s Michael Bay deciding to ditch a lot of what makes his movies difficult to watch. He doesn’t detest his characters, even if they do very bad things. And he doesn’t dress González in next to nothing. Each one of our main trio is treated as a real human being with real human complexities. That’s all I want. And it doesn’t hurt that the action is awesome too.