Ambulance (2022) 136 minutes rated R
directed by Michael Bay and written by Chris Fedak
shot by Robert De Angelis and edited by Pietro Scalia
starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eiza González and Garret Dillahunt
opens theatrically on April 8 courtesy of Universal
Loosely based on Larits Munch-Petersen’s Ambulancen, Michael Bay and Chris Fedak’s English-language remake expands and localizes this old-school high-concept programmer. Working with his lowest budget for an action movie (Pain & Gain cost $26 million in 2013) since his feature debut Bad Boys in 1995, the $40 million Ambulance is the Michael Bay equivalent of a Blumhouse chamber piece. The bulk of its running time is set in a single cramped location with three speaking characters. But because it’s Bay, the location is an ambulance careering through Los Angeles with an entire police department on its tail.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays a struggling Afghan war vet struggling with a newborn baby and his wife’s medical expenses, namely an experimental surgery that his insurance refuses to cover. Reluctantly (and secretly) visiting his estranged adopted professional criminal brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), the desperate father gets reluctantly roped into a planned bank heist which just happens to be taking place that day (a coincidence you’ll just have to roll with). The robbery goes sideways, and our brothers end up, money in hand, hijacking an ambulance containing an injured cop (Jackson White) and a paramedic (Eiza González).
The 135-minute picture takes its time setting up its characters and the bank robbery is staged for low-key tension and suspense over mad-chap intensity. Yes, the cops show up and there’s a public shoot-out straight out of Heat, but (for obvious moral reasons) the only casualties are the bank robbers not played by movie stars. This isn’t The Corruptor (which had action scenes during which innocent civilians were turned into Swiss cheese), and Bay knows exactly how much carnage these anti-heroes can cause (to create a risk to their freedom and safety) while remaining sympathetic.
One of the film’s strengths is that, partially due to Bay’s obvious adoration of first responders, we find ourselves rooting for both sides of the chase. Garret Dillahunt plays the lead local cop on the scene, complete with a slobbering dog who ends up accidentally fending off gunfire, while Keir O’Donnell plays the top FBI guy who A) is openly gay and unhappily married and B) was college friends with Gyllenhaal’s bank robber. While certain plot developments depend on coincidence, all the cops and robbers are at least as smart as the average audience member.
While that middle 75 minutes is an extended car chase, Fedak’s screenplay finds ways to spice up the drama while Bay uses drone cameras to ping-pong here there and everywhere with the greatest of ease. The hostage police officer was wounded during the robbery, so there is an extra incentive to make sure he doesn’t succumb to his injuries, and we get a jaw-dropping scene where our heroic paramedic must perform emergency surgery in a speeding vehicle while being talked through the procedure by various doctors and specialists. For the first 95 minutes, this is terrific entertainment.
Alas, Bay can’t help himself in stretching out that third act for the sake of conventional action and melodrama. Like The Rock, the sympathetic “villains” require secondary baddies and a heel turn to supply redemptive action. However, A) the third party engages in violence that would escalate the criminal penalties and B) the film ends up right back to an appropriately small-scale climax. It’s not an exact match, but I was reminded of Live Free or Die Hard which took a brief detour to have John McClane combat a fighter jet before circling back to a small-scale, character-focused conclusion.
That said, a bloated and redundant final 45 minutes does not remotely negate the proceeding 1.5 hours, nor does it fatally wound the proper climax. Olivia Stambouliah is a droll riot as an above-it-all tech expert, while Dillahunt is expertly cast to type. It’s nice to see González getting an actual character to play beyond just being ridiculously good-looking (see also: I Care a Lot). Abdul-Mateen II continues to just own the screen no matter the movie while Gyllenhaal relishes playing a borderline psychopath who is just moral enough to want to insure an ideal outcome for his brother.
Ambulance offers the so-called Bayham as well as an unapologetic melodramatic streak that threatens to make us care. While usually running at top speed, it is smartly paced to avoid exhaustion and fatigue and only trips up by trying to offer more than just its core premise. The film stretches its budget to an impressive degree, even if it’s sometimes reliant on cost-hiding close-ups and is as satisfying as any action movie Bay has made since The Rock. I mean, I have a soft spot for Transformers: Age of Extinction, but I’m weird that way.