Within ten seconds of watching Ambulance, it’s pretty obvious that we’re watching a Michael Bay movie. With the saturated colour palettes, swooping camera angles, and neck-breaking cuts, you’ll get to the end of the two hour, 16 minute-long runtime with as much whiplash as the drivers of the titular ambulance.
With Ambulance, Michael Bay takes a small-budget, made-for-TV Danish movie and aims to turn it into the heist blockbuster to end all blockbusters. And in a way, he succeeds. With a confused plot, stark departure from realism, and a painfully-long middle section, this isn’t objectively a very good movie. But it is a pretty good Michael Bay movie, which is measured on an entirely different scale altogether.
At the centre of Ambulance are Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who play adoptive brothers Danny and Will Sharp respectively. The sons of a charismatic career criminal, Danny seems to have fully embraced his father’s line of work as a cashmere-wearing bank robber while Will, a decorated war veteran, appears to have made an effort to stay on the straight and narrow after being taken in by the Sharps as a young child and raised as one of their own.
Will reluctantly reaches out to Danny years after they grew apart in the hopes of a loan, or maybe a slightly shady job in order to raise money for his wife’s cancer treatment, but soons seems to find himself tripping and falling into a $32 million bank heist.
Gyllenhall’s portrayal of Danny feels a little one-dimensional at first, verging on pantomime villain territory in order to contrast the more morally-inclined, reluctant robber Will. Still, Gyllenhall’s ability to switch from his trademark crazy eyes one moment, to a full-on charm offensive the next really helps to sell Danny’s character as a fundamentally loose cannon.
By the end of the movie, we see several moments that make it clear that in his own, albeit twisted way, he really does love his brother and will quite literally kill anyone who says otherwise.
Yahya’s role is a little bit more complex, as he works a lot more within the moral greys of the film as a fundamentally good person who finds himself in a situation rapidly spiralling out of his control. He posits himself as Danny’s Jiminy Cricket for most of the film, telling him to stop going too far or doing this and that — but you can’t help but wonder if he really is as good as the other characters keep telling us he is.
We see him embrace the chaos Danny brought him into a little more towards the end of the movie — even laughing and having fun at moments — which leads us to question whether Will’s dark side is as dormant as he likes to think.
The inflated respect given to police officers and veterans in this movie is an interesting, political addition by Bay and the writers. From start to finish, the hostages, FBI agents, and even the police officers in this movie all seem to assume that because Will is a decorated war veteran, he is in no way accountable to the same extent that Danny is. This is in spite of him playing a pretty equal, if not larger, role in the robbery as the one driving the ambulance.
There’s also the fact that, for the majority of the movie, the rest of law enforcement are only holding back because ‘one of their own,’ an injured police officer, is in the back. When, during the movie, there is a moment where it is assumed the police officer is dead, the other officers go all-in on trying to kill Will and Danny regardless of the very likely possibility of Cam, the EMT (played by Eiza González), being caught in the crossfire.
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This rapid change of attitude by law enforcement and the clear lack of value they see in the other hostage’s life on account of them not being a cop is a chilling moment that doesn’t last too long in the film (it turns out the cop is alive so they go back to trying to save both hostages), but it’s definitely one of the most interesting and impactful ones.
As for Cam herself, it is clear through certain camera shots, angles, and one particularly cringey walking-away-from-the-chaos-in-slow-motion sequence that she is being filmed with the male gaze in mind. It’s genuinely a shame that she was sexualised in this way, because apart from that, González gives a convincing and engaging performance as a highly capable EMT who will stop at nothing to save her patient’s life.
Cam’s strong, dedicated, and endlessly resourceful in somehow keeping the cop alive against all odds, whether it be through performing advanced surgery with a hairclip or persuading one of her captors to donate blood to the very person they shot.
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The tough-as-nails, feisty heroine is, in itself, a trope, but González helps avoid the character going into Mary Sue territory by portraying genuine fear, morally-questionable moments and mistakes along with the character’s undeniable skill as an EMT in a role that, post pandemic, feels all the more poignant.
She bounces off both leads well, balancing Gyllenhall’s craziness with her snark and building a sympathetic, almost-friendship with Yahya’s character that would probably be more believable if she wasn’t being held as a hostage against her will.
Nonetheless, despite the unbelievable circumstances of her connection with Will, it’s clear that the pair have a mutual understanding and respect for each other, with each seeing the other as victims of their circumstance in some ways.
But in terms of cast chemistry, Gyllenhall, and Yahya are the real stars. Although it takes a while for them to get there, by the movie’s last act, their bond and all its complexities are believably expressed by the pair, with moments such as their back-to-back shootout and car chase singalong giving echoes to Bay classic Bad Boys.
Although the movie is rich with the typical tropes you’d expect from Mr Bay (explosions abound, big boy guns, and the unnecessary sexualisation of the female lead), he does step out of his comfort zone a little in this film.
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The cool, blue-tinged saturation of the scenes in the sprawling, echoing bank help to bring a sense of slow-building, nail-biting tension that leaves you wishing that it lasted a little longer; as opposed to dedicating so much of the film’s runtime to the cramped back of an ambulance intercut with a few drone shots.
That isn’t to say that Bay doesn’t make use of car chase scenes and the rest of LA as visual spectacle (with producer Bradley Fischer telling us in an interview that LA is a character of its own in Ambulance). However, by their second near-miss with the law, it becomes obvious that Bay has no intention of the leading men being caught until the last possible second.
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This leaves a lot of these chases and action sequences — despite being interesting to look at with drone shots, low-angles and, at one point, car guns — feeling pretty low stakes and, after a point, repetitive. Visual sequences are action movies’ bread and butter, but when you feel pretty certain that the main players will be getting out unscathed, you start to wonder what the point of them is.
Ultimately, Ambulance is a slightly overstretched, cliche-ridden spectacle which, for the most part, is an enjoyable but bumpy ride.
Ambulance is available to watch in theatres from 25 March in the UK and 8 April in the US.
Far from the best movie ever, but enough explosions, Bay-isms, and strong performances make it a decent adaptation of a GTA video game car chase.