‘Ambulance’ Review: A Mind-Numbing, Explosion-Laden ‘Speed’ Knockoff Only Michael Bay Could Make

‘Ambulance’ Review: A Mind-Numbing, Explosion-Laden ‘Speed’ Knockoff Only Michael Bay Could Make

March 24, 2022

Loud macho bravado oozes from each explosion-laden, mind-numbing, testosterone-overdosing shot in the grossly expensive — and often quite lucrative — filmography of primo bro director Michael Bay. While his previous empty-headed action debacle, “6 Underground,” debuted on Netflix to little fanfare in 2019, Bay’s newest big-screen entry into his pro-military, pro-police, and pro-outdated masculinity oeuvre, “Ambulance,” comes as an attempt at something quasi-reflective best summarized as “Speed” told with an awfully blatant Blue Lives Matter angle.

“Nobody gets to kill a cop,” earnestly proclaims camo-pants-wearing Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), about the core reason for the bombastic chase in and around downtown Los Angeles at the center of this heroes-and-robbers movie. This is the man behind the terrible “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” so that the entire plot of this one hinges on the city moving heaven and earth to rescue a naïve policeman seems on brand.

But Bay, not a scribe, can’t get to these atrocious narrative concoctions on his own. For “Ambulance,” screenwriter Chris Fedak adapted the premise from a 2005 Danish film of the same title by writer-director Laurits Munch-Petersen. Changes for Fedak’s American version include highlighting the City of Angels’ geography, a multicultural cast, and, of course, the bootlicking praise for authority paramount to certain conservative ideologies.

Curiously, Jake Gyllenhaal, playing mischievously charming career criminal Danny, appears to have an affinity for English-language remakes of Danish hits about law enforcement or the military, as last year’s “The Guilty” or 2009’s “Brothers” can attest. Unfortunately, the Denmark-to-Gyllenhaal pipeline continues to disappoint.

Before getting to the life-saving vehicle of the title, cashmere-clad Danny ropes his adoptive brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a disillusioned war veteran struggling financially, into the cliched notion of “one last job.” Eye-roll-inducing flashbacks to the pair’s childhood point to a rough upbringing in the harsh streets of the California metropolis. But don’t expect their bond to go much deeper than a basic “I love you, bro.”


"Ambulance"

“Ambulance”

Universal Pictures

The dynamics of their household growing up with a lawbreaking father or the difference in their life experience based on race won’t get acknowledged. Vulnerability would evidently eat time away from the many cars that will crash, flip, and burn during their ordeal. In need of cash to pay for his wife’s medical treatment, Will agrees to rob a federal bank with Danny and his crew, but the plan goes awry, and, in the heat of their escape, he shoots a rookie officer, Zach (Jackson White), to protect Danny. Luckily for them, the wound isn’t fatal.

As shootouts and fast-paced mayhem unfolds around them, stoic EMT Cam (Eiza González) arrives at the scene to transport Zach to a hospital. Thanks to a convenient twist of timing and fate; however, Danny and Will take Cam’s ambulance at gunpoint, and in turn her and Zach as hostages, for a relentless odyssey flooring it across freeways and alleyways.

Throughout the predictable but still heart-pounding pursue, the camera pirouettes through the air capturing imposing footage of the skyline up-close or of the violent confrontations on wheels — at times going under a police car about to turn into a wreck or tracking the ambulance at full speed. There’s a brisk agility to the images that reiterate the unstoppable and lethal march of the situation. Overall, Roberto De Angelis’ cinematography maintains the intensity in this long ride balancing frantic closeups of the distressed faces of those in the thick of it and the aerial views that expose the larger-picture urban damage occurring.

One sequence involving helicopters and the ambulance dashing through water on the LA River in slow-motion feels uniquely exhilarating and grand as it’s crafted with the brute impetus of “Mad Max: Fury Road” set piece. Sonically though, one could almost bet that the instruction composer Lorne Balfe received from Bay for the score of “Ambulance” was to copy the marching band sounds pertinent to a Marines or Army recruiting commercial.

If nothing else, “Ambulance” thrives on its potent sense of place making the city of Los Angeles prominent in every frame, even if Bay likely chose the downtown area to bank on its grittiness and decay. Philosophically, it speaks of a lawless place to which — the film seems to insinuate — only the police and its law-abiding allies can bring light to. But in witnessing the lengths to which institutions will go to save one of their “boys in blue” inevitably makes one wonder if the LAPD’s unending budget, even in this fictional space, could be allocated towards the very issues that push Will to accept the illicit gig.

Fedak peppers in LA-specific jabs at the audacity of transplants who claim to know the city better than native Angelenos and white people who won’t go anywhere west of downtown, where predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods are. Likewise, the writer embeds some of the many supporting characters with personality traits that brim with insincerity. Halfway through, he introduces a gay character that solely exists to perpetuate the toxic traits of his straight counterparts, such as dismissing his partner’s mental health concerns.

Inside the vehicle, Gonzalez mines this role to infuse the picture with its most memorable performance, as a stone-faced woman, who’s managed to separate her high-stress career from her personal life, but now faces a moral quandary: saving herself or the lives of others. May this become just a steppingstone toward better parts.

A manic Gyllenhaal, constantly screaming, seems in line with characters the actor has delivered as of late. While infused with comic relief from time to time, Gyllenhaal’s work in “Ambulance,” as the stubborn older brother who doesn’t know when to quit, misuses his ability for greater complexity in playing ambivalent persona (think of “Nightcrawler”). Abdul-Mateen, the valiant knight of the tale, plays along in the perpetually tense scenario as the getaway driver with a solid moral compass, but his appearances are mostly reduced to some outburst of physicality and ultimately to simplistic sainthood.

And that’s precisely one of biggest sins of “Ambulance,” because when all it’s said and done, what it implies is that the only Black characters on screen have value because they are on the “right side of the system.” Will went to war for this country and is only stealing for a good cause, while officer Mark (Cedric Sanders), Zach’s partner, is bent on avenging him. At every turn, Bay’s choices, in the characters’ dialogue and how each of them is treated on screen, makes it crystal clear that only those that play by the rules deserve any compassion.

Likewise, Bay and Fedak don’t miss their chance to portray Latinos as one-dimensional gang members, which brings up an important point: we need a full investigation on white directors’ perverse fascination with La Santa Muerte, the skeletal deity now associated with the occult, that repeatedly appears as a motif of otherworldly exoticism around Mexican characters or their vision of the cartel. (David Ayer’s “The Tax Collector” and “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” are other recent examples.)

For all that doesn’t work in this overstuffed parade of collisions with simplistically conceived protagonists, what irks most is that Bay tries to pass it off as some of sort of profound humanistic à la statement a la “Crash.” Whatever semblance of progressiveness or call for unity he tries to invoke here, probably studio-mandated or strategically placed, comes off as far more insulting than if he were to just make his ridiculous movies completely devoid of any intent for conveying a message. Bay’s latest reeks of falsehood veiled as righteousness.

Grade: D

A Universal release, “Ambulance” will be in theaters on Friday, April 8.

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