Friday, April 22, 2022

Ambulance is a better than average (though overlong) Michael Bay film

The orange-tinged light of a new sunrise comes pouring in through every window. Shiny brightly-colored automobiles linger in the center of a frame. Cars don't just careen off the road, they violently shake and roll until they explode at the bottom of a slope. The telltale signs are all there. You're in a Michael Bay film now. His works have rarely been my cup of tea, but you have to admire the man for sticking to his auteur sensibilities for over 30 years now. Bay knows what he likes and how he prefers to film his proclivities.  A strong entry in his filmography like Ambulance doesn't eschew all the shortcomings of his works, but this particular title see's him indulging in some welcome creative flourishes. Who knew the way to a better Bay movie was by having channel Tony Scott?

Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) needs money. Fast. He's a veteran who can't get the healthcare he needs just as his wife (and the mother of his child) desperately requires an experimental surgery. This is when Will turns to his brother, Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal), a criminal that Will has become distant with. Will never wanted to get back into the game of robberies and crime, but with his bank account running so low, he has no choice. He joins up with Danny to rob a bank in Los Angeles, which should be an easy job. Unfortunately, things go south quickly and the duo end up hijacking an ambulance with EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza Gonzales) and a mortally wounded cop onboard. Now this unlikely quartet is trapped in an ambulance speeding down every road in Los Angeles pursued by an army of cops. There's no easy way out here, if there is even a possibility of exiting.

The script is credited to Chris Fedak (and based on an earlier French movie of the same name), but Ambulance has on key flaw that often drags down Bay's work: excess. We all know the recurring gripes that there are too many explosions, scantily-clad women, or quick cuts in his movies. Less remarked on is how often Bay's movies needlessly convolute simple premises with tons of extraneous characters. Robots fighting or missions to stop an asteroid get bogged down lots and lots of "wacky" side characters. This problem resurfaces in Ambulance to a frustratingly prominent degree. Do we need a lengthy backstory for a hostage negotiator? Why are there so many gags about one police officer's gigantic dog ripped straight out of a Marmaduke comic?

The main characters of Ambulance may be often going in just one direction to escape the cops, but the movies screenplay keeps going on weird side tangents that undercut the tension of this story. This plot is one screaming out for a lean-and-mean 80 minute treatment, not one where every character with two lines of dialogue gets lengthy scenes showing their home life of reheating Lean Cuisines or watching TV. This overabundance of supporting players means that the Sharp brothers and Thompson end up getting lost in the shuffle for extended periods of time. In its worst moments, Ambulance conveys an ADD-riddled mind struggling to focus on one thing rather than an endearingly all-over-the-map crime drama.

This flaw gets to be more and more troublesome as the excessive 137-minute runtime keeps going on (how is this longer than Memoria?) However, by the same token, restricting Bay's trademark directing and editing style to just one city rather than countless global landmarks does help inform the very best intense set pieces. At its best, Ambulance has a propulsive claustrophobic quality to it that suggests what would happen if Alfred Hitchcock's Rope went and chugged twelve Red Bulls. Imaginatively absurd sequences like having Thompson attempt to perform surgery while the titular vehicle is swerving all over the road work great at keeping you on the edge of your seat. Confined to one space and a handful of characters, Bay's visual motifs succeed at accentuating rather undercutting the tension in these specific sequences.

Ambulance is also aided by a pair of great central performances courtesy of two actors who can lend an appropriate sense of gravitas to the barrage of ludicrousness that this story provides. Abdul-Mateen II provides great tormented work in his character, just his facial expressions convey so much internal conflict that leave you guessing where Will Sharp will go next. Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, is in full-tilt Mr. Music mode here with his bulging eyes, veins popping off his neck, and loud line deliveries. Not every one of his jokey comments lands, but he's persistently compelling and the commitment on display from Gyllenhaal is remarkable. He may have become an award season darling for his restrained turns in movies like Brokeback Mountain, but Ambulance joins the likes of Okja in proving that this man works best when he's in total weirdo mode. 

In its best scenes, Ambulance uses the acting from these two plus some thrillingly creative set pieces to make something channeling the speed and thrills of Unstoppable. Unfortunately, less creative decisions, like Lorne Balfe's generically booming score or the eventual baddies that the Sharp brothers find themselves at odds with (yay, more evil cartel foes in American action movies) undercut Ambulance's wild energy. This movie desperately needed a trim in the editing room, but more often than not, I was entertained when watching Ambulance and fans of prior Bay films will probably be happier than a clam with his latest effort. Kudos to this director for stepping outside his wheelhouse a bit and for giving Gyllenhaal a playground to go nuts in.

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