ambulance michael bay review

Is Ambulance Michael Bay’s best film?

“The pitch for Ambulance may very well have been ‘Heat meets Speed, but in an ambulance and directed by Michael Bay.'”

At some point during Michael Bay’s latest, Ambulance, I began to take an inventory of the film’s highly cluttered universe: a large dog in a small car, pink flamingos, exploding fruit, fake flowers, quinceanera dresses, neon green beanies, gold necklaces, sports trophies, orange leather couches, religious relics, red caps and flaming hot Cheetos. In true Bay fashion, the screen explodes with dynamic movement and brims with overabundance — each shot overflows with excess information, compounded by the dizzying camera and rapid-fire cutting style. Though quite literally sickening in its construction, Ambulance may also be Bay’s greatest achievement — a film that strips Bay down to his purest form. 

The pitch for Ambulance may very well have been “Heat meets Speed, but in an ambulance and directed by Michael Bay.” We have two parallel stories: one of a marine, Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), trying to secure insurance money for his wife’s experimental surgery, and Cam (Eiza González), a hardened ambulance paramedic just trying to get through the day. Their fates intertwine as Will’s brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhall), draws Will into a bank heist that goes wrong. The ambulance breaks through the madness of a SWAT scene to pick up a wounded cop, only to be taken hostage by Will and Danny as they try to make their escape. 

Maniacally determined not to bore his audience, Bay foregoes exposition and stages most dialogue scenes using spinning and roving cameras. Before the heist begins, the first act feels very much like a series of mismatched music videos clumsily pasted together, rippling with sunkissed American-flag propaganda, glistening luxury cars and weepy sentimentality. The disorienting style is quite sickening, lulling the audience into a state of mild nausea. After about 10 minutes, you would be forgiven for thinking that this movie poses a threat to its audience and should be ignored. Strangely though (perhaps a bit of Stockholm Syndrome is involved), as the film’s action sets in, that style that was so distasteful starts to become exciting and even enthralling. 

Once the ambulance, now helmed by Will and Danny, starts buzzing through the streets of L.A., it’s impossible to breathe. The action, literally life or death, reaches a state of such ecstatic heights that the entire room seems to vibrate with each gesture and movement. Surprisingly, the movie is rarely disorienting and remarkably focused as new characters and set-pieces are introduced every 10 minutes. The script and characterizations are narrow enough to incorporate Bay’s signature flourishes and allow his kinetic style to thrive without losing the plot. 

Most of the film focuses on the ambulance’s three characters, each representing broad cinema stereotypes. Gyllenhall plays the manic psychopath, his eyes consistently bugging out as he complains about his ruined cashmere sweater. As Will, Abdul-Mateen II is far more demure, offering strength and stoicism in contrast to Gyllenhall’s over-the-top performance. Any of the film’s moral complexity emerges through his character trajectory, as a man torn between responsibility to his family and country and desperation in the face of an unequal and oppressive medical system. Thirdly we have Cam, the model-beautiful ambulance worker, cold as ice. Her character is arguably weakest on paper (pretty par-for-course in terms of Bay women), but she holds her own as a screen presence. The supporting cast, rounded out by characters actors like Garret Dillahunt, Keir O’Donnell and A Martinez, bring personality and eccentricity that only elevate the emotional and entertainment textures of the film. 

Politically, the film aligns with pro-war and pro-cop ideals. Much of the action relies, uncritically, on the extreme militarization of the American police force. Will’s background as a marine serves the narrative progression and informs his character but also becomes short-hand for his moral “goodness.” The film’s moral compass is more focused on anti-establishment ideas, in a broad sense, rather than overhauling a system to serve the people better. Michael Bay’s sympathy here lies with people who take action. Unsurprisingly, as a filmmaker allergic to stagnancy, the characters he likes most are those who do things, in the most literal sense of the word. If you prefer words or action, you are not worthy of respect. If you hesitate, you die. 

Not all audiences will take pleasure in Bay’s craft. If you have a complete distaste for his other work and if you hate Grand Theft Auto V, this movie isn’t for you. It’s an old-school, surprisingly low-budget (a slim $40-million — the first Transformers film, in contrast, was more than triple that) action drama that promises what it delivers. The action is tight, and the emotional beats palpable. If it seems strange to you in 2022 that a film critic might be recommending a Michael Bay film, it might also be worth considering the paltry genre and action pickings in general. It’s clear, decades into his career, which undeniably changed contemporary action-filmmaking, that he’s still the best at what he does, for better and for worse. ■

Ambulance, directed by Michael Bay

Ambulance is playing in Montreal theatres now.

For the latest in film and TV, please visit our Film & TV section.