Michael Bay's High-Octane 'Ambulance' Is a Thrill

It's well worth the ride.

ambulance movie jake gyllenhaal yahya abdul-mateen ii
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

At this point, if you decide to go see a Michael Bay movie, you know what you're in for. The director's patented "Bayhem" is always on full display, whether it's cars crashing into things and exploding, or cars turning into robots and exploding, or people built like cars walking away from actual cars that are exploding. This is the wild, dumb, reptile brain stuff that movies are built on, and Michael Bay is an expert at making it all look as incredible and ridiculous as possible. His new film, Ambulance (stylized as AmbuLAnce, a very funny thing to say out loud), is all of this and more, mixing together a heist plot and a family drama inside the crucible that is a speeding ambulance tearing its way down the highways of Los Angeles.

The movie, which is based on the 2005 Danish film of the same name, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as trigger-happy, cashmere turtleneck-wearing, career criminal Danny Sharp and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as his conflicted accomplice and adopted brother Will, a struggling army veteran who agrees to help Danny rob a bank in downtown LA so that he can pay his family's hospital bills. The heist goes awry when a plucky young police officer stumbles into it while trying to flirt with his bank-teller crush, and in the ensuing chaos the officer is shot, and an ambulance commanded by a steely EMT named Cam Thompson (Eiza González) rushes to his aid. Running through the belly of the bank to avoid the cops, Danny and Will hop inside and hijack the ambulance as it speeds out of the parking garage, leading an army of LAPD, SWAT, and the feds on a merry chase through the Los Angeles freeways.

Here is a fact: Movies are good when they're about a bunch of people trapped inside a fast-moving vehicle. Think Unstoppable, Speed, Air Force One. Here is another fact: Michael Bay is a good director of good movies. (What's that you say? 6 Underground? Never heard of it.) Ambulance has all of his tics: American flags blow in the breeze like the capes of warriors in Renaissance paintings. The characters in the film are American Heroes doing Things That American Heroes Do, Men With Wives and Men With Kids (and, in one case, With Husband) whose job is to Help People and Keep Them Safe. The camera lingers just as long on guns and muscles and the chrome grilles of expensive sports cars as it does on the "To Protect and Serve" emblazoned on the doors of the police cruisers. There's even something to say for the soft indictment of the US healthcare system and the futility of vet benefits—a guy has to rob a bank just to get enough money for his wife's experimental surgery. In Bay's world, even the bad guys are Just Trying To Do What's Right.

Ambulance is extremely big and extremely loud, and, for all its obnoxious noise and explosions and roaring car engines, it is gorgeous to look at. Now we have our answer to the question: When are directors going to start using drones for their intended purpose, which is swooping around buildings and through windows and under bridges to get the kinds of dizzying footage no other camera could achieve? Of course the guy to figure this one out would be Michael "How Many Exploding Cars Can We Fit Into One Scene" Bay. When he's not putting his heroes in extreme close-ups or zooming after cars on the highway, he's flying cameras through the air around skyscrapers and under trucks, getting the impossible shots that make you want to throw your hands in the air like you're on a rollercoaster. Every detail is heightened: Sweat stands out from actors' brows, vehicles scream past the camera, daylight is so brilliantly white it's nearly blue.

The only downside to the whole enterprise, really, is how long the movie is. At over two hours, the effect of zipping down the highway with a bunch of guys waving weapons around is somewhat dulled by the time you get to the end, and plenty of scenes almost don't belong. There's a prolonged tangent with a local gang, and one massive set piece involving Gyllenhaal leaning out of the ambulance window to shoot a gun at two helicopters was added in at the last minute, and it shows. A lot of the movie feels this way, like everyone involved was throwing crazy ideas on the table and saying, "Why not??" With an idea this simple and tight, you can understand the impulse to add in as much excitement as possible.

The fun of Ambulance comes from its throwback nature, no doubt helped by having a short shoot on a $40 million budget, a great sign for those who were worried that studio-funded $200 million superhero blockbusters spelled the end for the humble mid-budget action movie. With nonstop I-can't-believe-I'm-seeing-this excitement and a playful sense of humor—including genuinely funny banter and a lengthy scene involving golfing doctors explaining a nailbiting surgery over FaceTime—Ambulance feels like a return to form for a director who never left.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.