Ambulance proves why Michael Bay is the king of modern action filmmaking
Ambulance screening provided by Universal Pictures
“Ambulance hits like a heavy dose of morphine, and it keeps you infused right from its early stages until its heartfelt finale”
Not that we needed a new film to have any proof of it, but Michael Bay’s latest adrenaline pumping, ecstasy filled action thriller, Ambulance (2022), solidifies the polarising director’s position as the king of modern action filmmaking. It’s easy to write Bay off for his very in-your-face approach to direction and his emphasis on pure carnage ahead of refined storytelling, but Ambulance, like Armageddon (1998) and his Transformers films before it, is such a rewarding experience should you buy into Bay’s method for madness.
Ambulance hits like a heavy dose of morphine, and it keeps you infused right from its early stages until its heartfelt finale. The film sees military veteran Will Sharp (played by the ever brilliant Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) seek out his wild, law-breaking adoptive brother, Danny Sharp (a chaotic Jake Gyllenhaal) for a loan to pay for his wife’s costly experimental procedure. The only way Danny will be able to help his brother out is if his latest score —robbing a bank— goes well, but he needs Will to accompany him and his crew of knuckleheads to do it. Of course, the heist goes terribly after a police officer notices the brothers and their gang holding his rookie partner hostage — a partner who was convinced by his experienced counterpart that he should try and swoon a bank teller he fancies.
With their cover blown, crew shot up, and the LAPD breathing down their necks in an instant, the only way out for the brothers is courtesy of an ambulance containing paramedic Cam Thompson (Eiza González) that has arrived to pick up the shot rookie officer the brothers were holding hostage. In true Michael Bay style, everything is a shit storm and too much is left to the imagination in terms of how all of these events make sense, but Bay rolls with the punches and once he gets his cast into the ambulance, he can finally put his foot on the pedal.
It’s through the ambulance itself that Bay creates a sense of momentum and purpose. The director stretches each moment in the ambulance and in the chase that ensues, to their breaking point, using the vehicle as a vessel for building and maintaining tension while orienting the rest of the chaos that follows, around it. He took the same approach in Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) where he cut all the fat that comes with exposition —a problem that tends to subsume action films these days— and opted to just build the biggest and wildest action set pieces in recent times. Here, Bay piles on the excess from scene to scene, hitting multiple climactic points at multiple different times rather than going the route of having a sole moment of climax.
As Bay mentioned while promoting the film, “[his action] is like music: car, car, face, car, car, BAM, car…it’s very musical”. Ambulance is a testament to his unabashed approach to direction where he keeps the tension boiling, turns up the temperature gradually, and then drops the heat to a boil again while never turning it off. The best examples of this are found in the way the film’s technical elements work together to sing Bay’s chaotic tune: the piercing score, the snappy cross-cutting, the canted camera angles and the mobile camerawork that takes the audience and positions them in these unfamiliar situations. All of these elements come together to create entrancing moments of tense action that are complimented by larger than life set pieces as the ambulance continues down its path.
This is best exemplified through a scene involving Jake Gyllenhaal dangling out of the ambulance window as multiple police helicopters chase the vehicle down an LA waterway. A director like Michael Mann would opt to keep this sort of chase much more tightly framed and controlled, using drama as a means to necessitate the action — courtesy of dialogue that prompts a reaction. Bay, on the other hand, orchestrates a sequence like this by allowing the possibilities of the chase to dictate what could happen next. He uses action to incite further action and in this way, Bay’s films constantly have a rising feeling that maintains this insatiable tension from scene to scene.
It goes without saying that Bay knows how to choose his lead actors, with the trio of Abdul-Mateen II, Gyllenhaal and González finding their groove in the close quarters of the ambulance. Bay is drawn to actors with the look of action about them (something that was missing from Ryan Reynolds’ performance in 2019’s 6 Underground), with Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Bruce Willis and numerous others exemplifying that. This trio doesn’t really feel like a Bay-type cast (save maybe for González), but their chemistry is electric which is crucial to keeping one engaged with the film’s central brotherly plight and the nurturing presence that paramedics bring.
There’s a certain level of insanity underpinning every single Michael Bay film and Ambulance is no different in that regard. The film works because even with all the absurdity leading up to the characters finding themselves in the dire situation (let’s face it, no one would escape that many LAPD officers and vehicles), there’s never any respite to dwell on that aspect of the film. Bay keeps you on the edge of your seat for 95% of this film and only really ties all the loose ends at the end so that there is a sense of closure as the brothers daring escape comes to an end. As an audience member, it’s easy to see that this is a hopeless situation for Will and Danny, but the journey leading up to that moment is what puts Ambulance, and all of Michael Bay’s films, in a league of their own.
Ambulance opens nationally from the 7th of April 2022.
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