The modern megaplex’s dearth of craft makes the new Michael Bay flick feel like art cinema, which, let’s be clear: It really isn’t. In the first five minutes, we meet Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Will Sharp as he’s met with derision from insurance agents over the phone. Right, okay, so off the top, we see Michael Bay advocate for Medicare For All, super based, very European of him, you love to see it. Then, we get an extreme close-up of a home security system enabling before he drives off to the heist. This isn’t a set-up for later—we never return to Will’s home. You’ve just witnessed an honest-to-God product placement for ADT Security Services. Experiencing AMBULANCE in IMAX right before it gets shoved out by a new Fantastic Beasts movie is like hustling a bag of Fritos in a correctional facility; to watch a Michael Bay movie in 2022 is like someone showing you their 3D-printed ghost gun while in line for Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters. Can you imagine that? A Michael Bay car chase opus is currently seen as the fledgling underdog. Talk about the sign of the fucking times, brother.
Nevertheless, it’s a welcome return to form. The Transformers franchise delivered ten years of manic discordance spun as digestible merchandising vessels; pillars of a jingoistic American filmmaking that were both annoying and, with a world-over Marvel takeover that’s rendered these robots in disguise as has-beens, inconsequential. With Hasbro and Paramount spreading the Transformers seeds to their in-house factory men, Los Angeles native Michael Bay has been granted parole and access to a vast toy chest. Usually, another middle-aged Caucasian lad cruising on the praise of his 90s outputs doesn’t inspire much hope, especially one with aesthetic politics as vile as the director of REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, but the difference with Michael Bay’s conservatism is its elusiveness. He’s less defined by his ideology as he is by his practices, ranging from ruthlessly capitalist to ceaselessly socialist on a dime’s notice. He’s a shark, and a hungry one. As 6 UNDERGROUND proved, aka Eli Roth’s THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, your Libertarian cousin is really just a spritz of imagination away from being a Maoist. So what has one of the most violent directors to ever touch a camera cooked up in the lab? A breakneck, pre-vaccine romp through the blonde-haired, blue eye of a storm. He’s back, baby.
From BAD BOYS to PEARL HARBOR, we see Bay extracting his own essence from the for-hire requirements of making Tony Scott rip-offs, but it was crucial in the development of “Bayhem,” an auteurist-identifying term created by the director’s crew that he’s now adopted in earnest. Michael Bay regularly uses the word “Bayhem.” What a world we live in. ARMAGEDDON establishes Bayhem as nationalist pride with a Maxim cover sheen, BAD BOYS II sees Bayhem as maximalist splendor, PAIN & GAIN packs the Bayhem into a compact euthanasia syringe for the capitalist cash cow, 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI envisions Bayhem as the fog of war of America’s blowback, and now with AMBULANCE, the Bayhem transcends meta-text and becomes pure text, a spiritually coked-out Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wrung-out Will, and a self-doubting Cam (Eliza Gonzalez) progressively spiraling from the stresses of the setpieces they’ve sparked. It’s a Michael Bay action movie about two guys and an EMT who are fanning each other off because they’ve found themselves in a Michael Bay action movie.
You’ve likely heard a few people’s knee-shaking orgasms over the drone cinematography, and it’s warranted, but as good as the corkscrews around the vertices of DTLA skyscrapers feel, it’s when Bay makes 19-year-old Drone Racing League World Champion Alex Vanover operate those puppies indoors and beside moving cars where the movie shines brightest. He’s channeling a Woo-caliber forward momentum, the ambulance looping in a Downtown Los Angeles death spiral like Van Damme in the bayou. Bay is cutting the film in his head as he shoots it, picking up triple the amount of coverage he should with stolen shots and hip-fire instinct. As standardized as Bayhem is, AMBULANCE still feels as if it’s speeding off the cuff, and that’s because it is. Shot in 38 days with the same budget as LICORICE PIZZA, an emphasis on improv, and with a stellar centerpiece revolving the assistance of surgeons over FaceTime, it’s thoroughly a pandemic-era actioner. The restrictions of socially distanced filmmaking are treated as newfound freedoms: all studio eyes are on the novel coronavirus, so Bay can pull some freak shit with minor supervision. It’s maybe the only time any director will ever find the advantage to a debilitating global infection.
For what AMBULANCE gains in viscera it, predictably, slacks in most departments that blowhards would harp on as being pivotal for a “coherent, watchable movie.” Which, okay, fair. Every other line is smattered with “Dad,” “Brother,” “Serve my country,” “Family,” while Gyllenhaal sputters nonsense as Yahya drives in circles. The screenplay makes the puzzlingly self-defeating choice of directing Abdul-Mateen II to shrug off the chaos by audibly reminding folks watching that he, indeed, served in the military. The first time it’s brought up, it’s a familiar, but necessary template to fulfill Bay’s classically threadbare character work, and the third time, it’s a clever ding at U.S. interventionism when Will remarks upon the sight of a bale of bank notes that he’s seen something like this “once; I was giving it to the Taliban,” but by the fifth time, it’s a forced crutch to keep Will out of the action while still being front-and-center of it all.
There is a bizarre restraint in letting Gyllenhaal stand alone in his mania, and Jesus Christ, is he on one: firing off assault rifles as an emblem of Keurig popping, personal trainer harassing, cashmere-to-the-bank-robbery type, new-age white collar masculinity. If you’ve worked in customer service, this freak has accosted you before. I think Bay is so afraid of his characters being perceived as gay that he makes sure several characters constantly vocalize that our two leads are adopted brothers. We never meet their father, but it’s mentioned offhandedly that he was a master bank robber—it’s hilarious, the movie self-editing its intentions as it rockets down the barrel. AMBULANCE’s focus isn’t on the logistics of a heist (to the contrary, there is no plan, at all), and it might be about two reunited brothers, but it’s more importantly centered on the perspective of who’s watching the screen. There are times where you’d swear you were watching a theme park stage show, every decision calibrated for the sake of entertainment alone.
Composer Lorne Balfe’s inspired mix of pompous inspirational and the industrial churning of Optimus Prime’s bubbleguts is an apt accompaniment to the juggling of tones, with AMBULANCE jumping from junk food merriment one moment to stone-faced soap opera the next. Did the Mexican Cartel need to be involved? Nope, not at all. But listen: life is a Rainbow Road and no one wants to get hit by the Blue Cartel Shell. Eiza González is given numerous signature Bay walk-offs in a role that once and for all flaunts her potential after years of thankless bit parts (she hates all the men in her life, is dead-focused on her EMT career, and is growing from a history of addiction: it’s a far cry from a teenage Megan Fox being insisted to wash a car in a bikini), but there’s no better hero moment than her bumrushing past the cops in the finale to give her injured companion the medical attention he needs, nay, deserves. Cam spends the full movie seeing the humanity in an armed criminal that the authorities shunt off as another corpse for the pile. Reductive, but nevertheless beautiful stuff.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Ever since I mentioned that AMBULANCE had the same budget as LICORICE PIZZA, you’ve hardly been able to focus. And me neither. How the fuck do you shoot *this* movie for $40 million? Well, you honeydick the cops, that’s how. Stunts, street closures, and hardware rentals that’d cost 7-figures were paid with pennies simply because cops love Michael Bay. Yep. The lunatic Chief Michel Moore gets an in-movie shout-out, LAPD union boss and local fascist Jamie McBride plays a supporting character, and police escorts were courted as extras so they could tell their battered wives that they got to be in a Michael Bay major motion picture. That sounds like a lot of sucking cops’ dicks, but Bay’s a tricky one. Here he’s sculpted Peter Berg’s PATRIOT DAY but for a completely fictional event. A made-up FBI agent gets the dumbest text of all time (“BANK ROBBERY IN PROGRESS, DTLA”) just to hammer home how this hostage scenario that would warrant a fully militarized LAPD response would never happen. The $317 million in American Rescue Plan COVID relief funds spent on LAPD’s payroll expenditures is burnt money; investments in boogeyman scenarios. Garret Dillahunt’s police captain notes upon being questioned for his full force deployment against a rogue ambulance that “The Mayor wants this—he’s a Silver Lake Liberal.” Reach across the aisle and you’ll achieve unity in state violence.
There’s zero meaningful diplomacy for a hand-off of the injured cop, the innocent hostage, or for secure escort. These pigs really just want to eviscerate the whole fucking vehicle. Bay presents a gang war between the richer rich and the corporate capital protectors, both bartering with a bloodied cop body. The female health care worker is never inserted into the equation. A cop car dive-bombs off a cliff on its own, and cruisers are totaled by the dozen. Not a single one is destroyed by the titular ambulance. It’s all user incompetence that causes the carnage in AMBULANCE. The cherry on top is Bay’s penchant for professional consultancy, AKA “I am going to ask the police what they’d do in this scenario and then act it out.” It’s a brilliant, if inadvertent, silent indictment: ask the cops what they’d do and visually translate the chaos they’d explain. See how no one is able to identify or catch a spray-painted ambulance? AMBULANCE got professional notes on that. The movie grins.
Now, there’s a fat trade-off. Decepticons are vivisected, Cubans are crushed by SUVs, billionaires’ mercenaries are skewered by full kitchen knife sets, and even the secret soldiers of Benghazi get mowed down on screen like caged hogs. In his quest to score a discount off the pigs, AMBULANCE is forced into a concession over body counts and disfigurements. The Birkenstock-rocking romantic in Danny’s crew gets his legs road rashed to ribbons as both moral retribution and for a laugh, but nary a member of the LAPD is either shot or seen in their demise outside of an anonymous car crash. Of course, the major exception is the poor chap in the back of the ambulance being sent into cardiac arrest at the beginning of every act break, but his fading heartbeat provides the valorous hum to Will and Cam’s quests for redemption. His spleen pops like a water balloon, but saving the rookie is still key to following a code of honor. We’ve seen what happens when Bay doesn’t respect a type of person; perhaps, a group of people; furthermore, a race of people. That abject display of disrespect is not had here for the dopey police, but he’s still slyly gaming them.
I find it hard to believe in abolition. Not that losing the faith has deterred my rhetoric, my financial efforts, or demeanor, but there’s a higher percentage of me that understands that I’m throwing money into an ideological void than there is a percentage that realistically foretells a material shift in public safety. The closest taste we got to a tangible shift was in June 2020, and I strongly believe it’s no coincidence that, with midterm elections and a 2024 presidential race around the corner, the United States has chosen an endemic approach to a raging virus to prevent another microscopic dissection of the country’s rusted cogs. The dropped mandates, the mass unreported positive cases, the first-world jolt into labored normalcy… All because we put our hands too deep in the cookie jar. So, your kids are going to live in a police state. What Bay proposes is a classically Republican stance: what are the federal loopholes and how can I abuse them? And it’s enticing. In its very form, AMBULANCE shows you how the police can be gamed for your own delights. Michael Bay’s theatrics veil the true heist at the core of AMBULANCE. Like superheroes traversing through multiverses, or friendly hedgehogs joining your family, it’s a crude power fantasy of the American cinema.