Ambulance : Film Review
Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II star as adopted brothers on a bank heist gone wrong in Michael Bay’s latest action thriller
Michael Bay’s maximalist action cinema finds another gear in Ambulance, a chase picture which spotlights the filmmaker’s visual panache alongside his considerable storytelling weaknesses. That said, the relentless kinetic energy of his latest represents some sort of high-water mark, offering giddy pleasure as his criminal antiheroes frantically careen across Los Angeles trying to stay ahead of the cops hot on their trail. There is a would-be epic grandeur to this pedal-to-the-metal thriller, which sometimes clashes comically with Bay’s inability to render three-dimensional characters, but Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plug effortlessly into his frenzied vision.
Barrelling into UK theatres this Friday — the US release is April 8 — Ambulance boasts star power, although Bay may ultimately be a bigger draw than his actors. The man behind The Rock and Transformers has crafted a heist thriller coupled with what is essentially an extended getaway, one with plenty of complications. This remake of a 2005 Danish picture will have competition at the box office thanks to Morbius and Sonic The Hedgehog 2, and may struggle to match the grosses of Bay’s biggest hits.
Taking place over one anxious L.A. day, the film stars Abdul-Mateen as Will, a former Marine desperately trying to pay for his wife’s lifesaving surgery. He reluctantly turns to Danny (Gyllenhaal), whose family adopted him when he was a boy. Will and Danny have been as close as blood brothers ever since, although Danny’s criminal lifestyle has caused tension between them. Nonetheless, Will is in a bind, and Danny suggests he join up on the bank heist he is about to execute. Reluctantly, Will agrees, but the plan goes wrong, and soon the two men are forced to seize an ambulance occupied by tough-as-nails paramedic Cam (Eiza Gonzalez) in order to escape the cops.
The brief backstory establishing Will and Danny’s bond is merely an excuse to set the heist in motion, resulting in a propulsive shootout with police and, then, an elaborate car chase in which Will drives the ambulance and Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), the cocky leader of an elite LAPD unit, tries to track them down. What adds extra drama is that a cop Will wounded (Jackson White) is in the back of the ambulance, requiring Cam’s focus to ensure he does not die. Monroe cannot simply blow up the ambulance because of his fellow police officer inside, so it’s not just that Will and Danny have to stay ahead of their pursuers — they have to keep this cop alive.
It is no surprise that Bay devotes his attention to the breathless rush of quick-cutting images. Exaggerated angles, lens flare and gaudy slow-motion are all prominently featured, with the director positioning the two men’s plight as a nearly biblical tale of brothers about to face a grand reckoning. (Lorne Balfe’s ponderous, pounding score only amplifies Ambulance’s operatic aspirations.)
Of course, Bay’s skill at crafting explosive action set pieces has always outpaced his talent for character building, which leaves his actors to ground the story in genuine emotion. Gyllenhaal does not always strike the right balance between dramatic and irreverent as the sarcastic Danny, dialling up the intensity a little higher than necessary. Much stronger is Abdul-Mateen, who imbues Will with a quiet decency. This former soldier has always played by the rules, but when his insurance company refuses to pay for his wife’s procedure, he is forced to take matters into his own hands, and Abdul-Mateen humanises the moral grey area in which the character now lives.
Gonzalez is as formidable as her costars playing a hostage who will need to perform a nerve-racking operation in the midst of a high-speed freeway chase. (The sequence is one of many that is flagrantly preposterous, but Bay and his actors carry it off with aplomb — and perhaps with tongue partly in cheek.) But the film’s central conflict is between the two brothers, whose lives have sent them down different paths. Screenwriter Chris Fedak’s dialogue, like most in any Bay picture, is shouted and thuddingly obvious, but Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen work hard to create some pathos.
With its use of actual downtown L.A. locations, Ambulance will draw comparisons to another City of Angels crime-thriller, Heat — especially when Bay stages a bank shootout with vague similarities to the one in that Michael Mann classic. But for all its showy excesses, sophomoric humour and strained gravitas, Ambulance is often riveting, the film speeding along as recklessly as that ambulance. This popcorn thriller certainly is not brainy, but its escapism has a muscular precision.
Production companies: Bay Films, New Republic Pictures, Project X Entertainment
Worldwide distribution: Universal Pictures
Producers: Michael Bay, Ian Bryce, Bradley J. Fischer, William Sherak, James Vanderbilt
Screenplay: Chris Fedak, based on the film Ambulancen written by Laurits Munch-Petersen and Lars Andreas Pedersen
Production design: Karen Frick
Editing: Pietro Scalia, Doug Brandt, Calvin Wimmer
Cinematography: Roberto De Angelis
Music: Lorne Balfe
Main cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eiza Gonzalez, Garret Dillahunt
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