After over a decade of creating laughing stocks of cinema, Michael Bay may have gained not redemption but a respite with Ambulance.
Ambulance is the gritty and bloody extended episode of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. For our road runner, we have an ambulance containing adoptive brothers Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) trying to escape with 32 million dollars, as well as the unfortunate EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza Gonzalez). And for our Wile E. Coyote, we have practically the entire police force of Los Angeles.
There are some directors’ names you can throw around among film communities to generate immediate ridicule, such as Uwe Boll or Paul W.S Anderson. One of them, one of the most infamous, is Michael Bay. Any mention of him will most likely devolve into a series of angry discussions about explosions, hot women, and how he ruined Transformers forever. Yet, when I first watched the trailer for Ambulance and saw the name Michael Bay in the director’s spot, I immediately made up my mind to go and see it. The main reason being that despite his reputation, his movies are usually a good time, for better or for worse. At best they are genuine guilty pleasures that you can scarf down a whole bucket of popcorn with, and at worst, there’s always fun to be had laughing at how much the film soils itself.
Given Bay’s more recent set of failures, mainly involving grinding Transformers fans hearts through a car crusher, I was more expecting the latter. However, after 136 minutes, I was pleasantly surprised, because as far as Michael Bay films go, this one is actually kinda okay. I realize, to some, that’s like saying breaking your leg is better than breaking your spine, but not only is that still true, but, in a vacuum, I can still say that Ambulance is a decently entertaining action movie.
A large part of Ambulance‘s success comes down to the fact that this is very much a Michael Bay movie. And I am not talking about explosions. Despite the director’s biggest meme association being with big balls of fire constantly going off in IMAX 4D, I counted only three explosions in this film, and only one was actually a sizeable one. But explosions are only one way through which Bay expresses his Bay-ness, that being impact.
See, Bay originally started out directing not movies, but commercials and music videos. Those are usually 1 to 3 minutes, and usually focus on short-term impact and flashy visuals to capture people’s eyes. A diet coke commercial doesn’t focus on creating a subtle and slow buildup to let the audience soak in its atmosphere. They push the coke in your face, demanding you drink it along with flashy effects and blaring music. Bay excels at creating those impactful moments, and it is very clear in his movies as well. The main thing being that there is always something moving in his frames. If the characters aren’t moving, then something in the background is, whether that be cars, helicopters, or even just an office fan. And if that doesn’t work, he moves the background itself, or more accurately, the camera. This is very evident in Ambulance too, as, many times, the camera will do a flip, spin, triple axel and a barrel roll just for a simple establishing shot. On top of that, he’ll throw in lens flares, bright colors, and close ups so that even when you’re not sure what is happening, you like what’s happening.
Yet, it is that penchant for moment to moment impact that’s also been Bay’s downfall many times in the past. For one, and this is a flaw that Ambulance unfortunately shares, is that the movies make you feel like your brain is trying to run a marathon. Bay gives you a constant stream of flashy, in your face scenes that are fun individually, but that’s the thing: it’s constant. Because it never lets up, that impact becomes the norm, and towards the third act, not only are your eyeballs screaming for a break, but the scenes no longer hit as hard, making what’s happening onscreen feel like white noise.
However, there is also a second flaw that isn’t present in Ambulance, and that is the stories, or, more specifically, complex stories. Bay prioritizes making every frame impactful above anything else. Hence, when he’s dealing with many different characters and a deep lore, not only does he not put as much effort into them, but they’re often drowned out by the endless visual and auditory impacts. This is why I believe the Transformers films that Bay is so hated for failed as spectacularly as they did. Those had relatively complex stories, and actual worldbuilding, and therefore were a poor fit for Bay’s directing. But Ambulance’s story isn’t like those movies. Again, the plot really is just one giant car chase sequence, with only a few bells and whistles thrown in. Basic stakes and motivations are set up at the beginning and are easy to understand. They need money, and they have someone they love. This leaves Bay to do what he does best: making every frame exciting, which he does, albeit sometimes to an excessive extent.
That said, the characters and actors shouldn’t be understated. Their motives might be simple, but they are compelling enough to make me invested. And without spoiling, the film plays with morality a little bit, asking how far one would go for family. The actors give it their all as well, with special mention to Jake Gyllenhaal. He carries the bulk of the film’s emotions, mixing volatility and sympathy to create a genuinely engaging character. And thankfully, that basic engagement is all you need for this kind of film.
Thus, the success of Ambulance mainly comes down to Bay finding a simple movie that can actually work with and flourish under his style. It doesn’t do anything extremely well, but it doesn’t do anything quite wrong either. I wouldn’t go watch it again, or even buy it when it eventually comes out on DVDs. But I don’t consider the time I spent watching it a waste. And when it comes on a TV channel one night, I will gladly settle down at the couch with a tub of ice cream.
Ambulance was released in theaters worldwide on April 8, 2022. Read our list of Michael Bay movies ranked from worst to best.