If Michael Bay is smart, and having a long career as, essentially, a one-trick pony, leads us to believe he must be, he will cast Olivia Stambouliah in all his films from now on. As Lieutenant Dhazghig, the crack surveillance officer in charge of keeping track of where the rogue, and eponymous subject of Bay’s latest film, AMBULANCE, is skittering through Los Angeles, she views the hypermasculinity around her with a baleful eye, putting the guys in their place with a cocked eyebrow and an air that can best be described as supremely unimpressed. She is the most refreshing thing in this latest smash-em-up fest from the master of that genre, providing a meta-commentary that might signal the next phase of Mr. Bay’s career doing sly parodies of his previous work. In a perfect world, she would be the lead in his next film, but, well, baby steps.
This time, though, the leads are Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as brothers Danny and Will Sharp. Close as children, they have drifted career-wise, with Will joining the Marines and serving with distinction in Afghanistan, and Danny continuing in the footsteps of their father, a psychotic bank robber. When Will’s wife, Amy (Moses Ingram), the mother of his toddler son, needs experimental surgery, the kind that their insurance won’t pay for, he turns to Danny, who is both delighted to see him and to offer him the deal of a lifetime. There is a bank with $32 million in cash just waiting for the right gang of plucky bank robbers to steal it, and they need a really great driver. That would be Will, who would rather have a loan or a job to pay for Amy’s procedure, but is just desperate enough to fall for Danny’s persuasiveness.
Of course, it goes wrong, but before the brothers end up in the ambulance with the crack, but anti-social, EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza González) and the cop that one of them shot when things went south, we are introduced to the colorful characters in Danny’s gang. In this case, the churlish man-mountain nicknamed Mel Gibson and the boho in Birkenstocks. We also meet that cop (boyishly adorable Jackson White) who stumbled into the heist after being egged on by his partner to finally ask the teller on whom he has a crush for a date. For added color, there is Keir O’Donnell as the FBI agent called away from a marriage counselling session to help catch the brothers, and his sparring partner, police Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), supervising the inevitable, and interminable, car chase through Los Angles while clad in an orange sweatshirt and fretting about his beloved pooch suffering the ill effects of an unfortunate dinner choice by his master.
It’s just so much window dressing. The point of any Michael Bay film is to cause as much destruction as possible and in that, AMBULANCE succeeds admirably. There is the de rigeur mayhem in the streets of Los Angeles as police cars perform intricate choreography around the ambulance while Will tries to find a way to elude them. That’s just one of the many ridiculous plot devices wherein a visual effect takes precedence over any and all attempts at even internal logic. At a running time of over two hours, it quickly becomes obvious just how thin this device is, the wonders of nimble choreography notwithstanding, even if we are constantly reminded that the police are trying to keep their wounded comrade alive. One assumes they are worried about Cam, too, but to a lesser degree. Automobiles fly through the air, sometimes ablaze, sometimes not, and sidewalk businesses find themselves in peril. Plus, close ups of ad hoc surgery in a vehicle going above the speed limit, and the requisite quota of weapons blazing gunplay.
Inside the ambulance, things are predictably tense as the policeman’s condition deteriorates along with Danny’s mental stability. Gyllenhaal is delightfully unhinged, with that smooth patter and smoother charm that sociopaths ooze so effortlessly giving way to bursts of mania as those around him continually fail to meet his expectations. He is the second-best thing going here, dangerous and comic at the same time. It is a counterpoint to Abdul-Mateen’s solid, painfully earnest, take on a good guy suffering the consequences of one bad decision.
Bay based AMBULANCE on Laurits Munch-Petersen’s AMBULANCEN, a Danish film with fewer crashes and more interest in pursuing ethical questions and familial obligations than flying down a freeway. All in less than 90 minutes. The most annoying part of this remake is how little imagination Bay brings to it. Now, it’s not like we go to a Michael Bay film to ponder life’s mysteries. We go to be dazzled by the visuals, and to live with the story whose sole purpose is to provide a showcase for them. Where is the dazzle amid the slick editing? The sequences here are all but interchangeable, not just with each other, but with any standard-issue action flick wherein cars whip along with wild abandon in pursuit of each other. One puckish shot of a lime-green ambulance wreaking havoc in a bridal warehouse does not carry a whole film.