Michael Bay brings his brand of Bayhem to the mean streets of L.A. for his latest action thriller Ambulance. Bay’s first film since the disappointing 6 Underground (2019), Ambulance is as ludicrous as you would expect from a Bay film, as well as his most enjoyable feature since the underrated 13 Hours (2016).
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays ex Marine Will Sharp who is struggling to come up with the finances needed to cover his wife’s upcoming medical bills. Because of this he has no choice but to turn to his brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for help. A career criminal, Danny talks Will into joining him on a $32 million bank heist.
Things are going to plan until Zach (Jackson White), a lovelorn cop shows up to ask one of the bank tellers out on a date. Quickly realizing something is amiss, Danny is forced to take Zach hostage. Waiting outside, Zach’s partner Mark (Cedric Sanders) notices something going on inside the bank, with him eventually engaging in a firefight within and outside the bank.
During the chaos Zach gets shot. Paramedic Cam (Eiza Gonzalez) is quickly on the scene to get Zach to the E.R. Loading him into the back of her ambulance she is quickly taken hostage by Will and Danny who need her ambulance as a getaway vehicle. At first they are unaware they have an injured cop in the back but quickly realize the advantage of having him as a hostage. It is now up to Cam to keep Zach alive whilst at the same time Will and Danny use the ambulance to try and outrun the Police.
Reading the synopsis you have probably realized that, sadly, Ambulance is not a remake of the Roger Corman produced 1990 film of the same name with Jake Gyllenhaal in the Eric Roberts part and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II filling in for James Earl Jones. While to some this might seem like a missed opportunity, what we are given instead is probably more worthwhile.
Instead Bay has based his film on director Laurits Munch-Petersen’s 2005 Danish film, also called Ambulance. Unlike the original which ran a lean 80 minutes, Bay has opted to stretch the length of his movie to 136 minutes, allowing him to include 100% more action and carnage than the original. Now some may think that Bay is being excessive but this is one remake I actually found improved on the original.
I have seen a few speaking as if the 2005 original is some kind of unheralded classic, mostly down to the fact that it’s not a typical Hollywood thriller having been made in a different country, overlooking the fact that it isn’t a particularly great example of a European thriller. Sure, the initial synopsis is great but how it developed left me cold.
This new version of Ambulance was initially to be directed by Philip Noyce before going to directing duo Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales. Their version of the film never came to fruition with the project finally coming to the attention of Bay after his own planned feature Black Five fell through because of Covid-19.
Clearly parts of Chris Fedak’s script were reworked once Bay was on board as there are a good number of callbacks to Bay’s past filmography with characters even discussing action classic The Rock (1996) and Bad Boys (1995) during the film. Clearly Bay doesn’t mind poking fun at himself these days, something I’m not sure he would have been comfortable doing in his earlier days.
Bay’s reasoning of making Ambulance was to make something smaller scale, but I suppose the explosions and vehicular mayhem just got in the way. Although this is a relatively low budget affair for Bay, coming in at a reported $40 million, you wouldn’t know it by how the film looks.
Bay’s exuberant camera work adds a distinct energy to the on screen action, employing the use of drones to include shots that in the past that would have been nigh on impossible. I honestly don’t remember there being one static shot during the film’s entire run time.
As expected, with the majority of the film being set in and around an Ambulance, the main bulk of the action is vehicle based with a variety of car chases making up a fair amount of the screen time. These are all expertly staged, with the previously mentioned camera work just adding to the overall excitement.
Even with a lot of the film taking place on the road, Bay still manages to include some well placed shootouts. The opening bank robbery which descends into a fierce firefight in downtown L.A. is one of the film’s standout action scenes, with Bay liberally spraying the streets with blood.
Filled to the brim with testosterone, Ambulance barely lets up with Bay keeping things moving at such a relentless pace that you don’t really have time to dwell on the less successful pieces of the film. Like a lot of Bay films, there are the expected plot holes and the characters aren’t exactly the deepest, although the cast do so well in their roles that you will hardly notice.
Of the two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal certainly had the more showier part, with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II being the more level headed member of the team. Gyllenhaal makes for a terrific anti-hero, with career criminal Danny being dangerously charismatic. Even when at his most crazed, I was still hoping he would somehow get through he and his brother’s predicament.
Any other film Danny would be the clear cut villain, but he has some redeeming qualities that actually makes his character more interesting than expected. He clearly loves his brother, even if he is the one that put him in harm’s way and is visibly angry when people try to say Will isn’t his brother because he was adopted.
Danny is another in a row of quality performances from Gyllenhaal and although not his finest role, is just further proof that he continues to be one of Hollywood’s best actor currently working today.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II isn’t as well established as Gyllenhaal but he has had some notable roles recently. To action fans he is probably most recognizable for his role as Black Manta in Aquaman (2018) as well as portraying the new iteration of Morpheus in last year’s The Matrix Resurrections (2021), although we won’t hold that against him.
Personally I think Ambulance is one of his better roles, with him pretty much being the lead, although this could have been very different with his role originally being given to Dylan O’Brien. However, O Brien had to drop out of the production due to scheduling conflict, paving the way for Mateen II to take over.
O’Brien’s loss is Matten II’s gain. While he is more of the straight man, at least in comparison to wild card Danny, he still gets a chance to show off his acting and action chops. His character is the actual driving force of the film, with his reasoning for turning to crime even being understandable.
Chris Fedak actually manages to get some pertinent digs at how the government treats its heroes through the character of Will. Having fought for his country he can’t even be afforded the courtesy of a conversation with his insurance company, being either put through to a machine or being rudely cut off because someone is on their break. The reason these early scenes work in the context of the story is that they are entirely plausible.
When I say two leads, in essence there are actually three, with Eiza Gonzalez’ Cam playing an equally important part in the story. Taken hostage by Will and Danny, it is up to her to keep the injured Zach alive, giving the film that much needed tension. At the beginning her character appears cold and detached, just going through the motions of her job. It is through the events of the film that she seems to come alive again and begin to care again.
Of Gonzalez’s recent starring roles I would say that Ambulance is certainly more suited to her talents than something as unmemorable as Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) and is definitely a step in the right direction.
In addition to the main cast, there are strong supporting turns, most notably from the always great Garret Dillahunt who plays the tough SIS chief hot on Will and Danny’s tail. It made a change for once to see Dillahunt get to play the good guy, even if he does play him as something of an asshole. This is especially true upon meeting Keir O’Donnell’s FBI Agent who he isn’t exactly complimentary towards.
O’Donnell plays off against Dillahunt well and makes for an interesting foil to Danny and Will. It is true that he isn’t given a great deal in character development, although the script doesn’t make him the typical gruff FBI agent either which was both refreshing and surprising considering this is a Michael Bay movie.
One other actor of note is screen veteran A Martinez who is a welcome addition to any cast. I have been a fan of Martinez for years going back to when I first saw him as a youngster in The Cowboys (1972). More recently he played the scheming Jacob Nighthorse, a villain you couldn’t help but like in the television series Longmire (2012). Unsurprisingly he is once again playing a villain here. His role doesn’t exactly stretch him as an actor, just that I got a kick out of seeing him grace the big screen once again.
Ambulance will clearly have its detractors, and some may think I’m crazy for giving a Michael Bay film such a positive review, but love him or hate him there is no denying that his films have an energy. To be honest I was more than happy just to be taken along for the ride, and although not entirely perfect, Ambulance has pretty much everything a quality action film needs. Definitely Recommended.
Plot: 3/5 Acting: 4.5/5 Action: 4/5 Overall: 3.8/5