Ambulance: Faint praise, but this is easily Michael Bay’s best film in 25 years

Film review: The director delivers a slightly more sophisticated take on his usual mayhem

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Director: Michael Bay
Cert: 15A
Genre: Action
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eiza González, Garret Dillahunt, Keir O'Donnell, Moses Ingram
Running Time: 2 hrs 16 mins

It says something about what the pandemic has wrought that, in a spirit of hope over experience, some of us approached the latest cacophony from MICHAEL BAY! with guarded enthusiasm. Nobody sane wants to see more of his Transformers or any return to the horrors of Pearl Harbor. But he has, we're promised, ascended from the underworld to offer us a more intimate variation on his apocalyptic aesthetic. In the sense that Korea was the more intimate of General MacArthur's two wars, this helicopter-stuffed, deafeningly explosive, relentlessly violent campaign of copaganda delivers on that assurance.

Based on the Danish film Ambulancen – though more conspicuously inspired by a classic American thriller we will mention shortly – Ambulance stars the fast-rising Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a war veteran who, saddled with medical costs for his sick wife, reluctantly agrees to help his adoptive brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) rob a bank in downtown Los Angeles. An enormous gunfight ensues before the pair make away in an ambulance with an injured cop and a paramedic for hostages.

The nods to Michael Mann's Heat in that opening third are so vigorous the film risks shaking off its own head. The battle around the streets of LA does not bear serious comparison with the structured chaos in Mann's film, but, in its hyperactive fashion, it can stand as a respectable homage (if we are allowed so Frenchy a word within 50ft of a Michael Bay film).

Soon the forces of the LAPD are massed and the hoodlums are forced into bloody improvisations. Ambulance is too long. Despite lavish sound design, the dialogue is too often garbled. The late, well-meaning efforts to graft a bit of vague Black Lives Matter subtext on to the action are unconvincing. But, at the risk of damning with the faintest praise, this is easily Bay’s best film in more than 25 years.


Praise must go the way of a game ensemble. Cast marginally against type in what we're calling the "Nic Cage role", Gyllenhaal, usually a more passive-aggressive baddie, rants and raves with commitment as the sociopathic mastermind. Abdul-Mateen, so good in Watchmen and The Trial of the Chicago 7, balances vulnerability with desperation in a role that maps neatly on to Dennis Haysbert's in Heat. Until now best known for the creepy science-fiction flick Alita: Battle Angel, Eiza González stakes her claim to stardom with her witty, dogged performance as the paramedic tasked with keeping the haemorrhaging cop among the living.

It would, however, be churlish not to acknowledge Bay's continuing ability to be himself. It takes the more martial class of filmmaker to stretch an action film so effectively across such a wide expanse of Los Angeles. He has railed himself in from the excesses of Transformers, but Bay is still aware there are few things so exciting as helicopters chasing cars along the LA river. So he gives us that. The shots sometimes stretch way out to an uncharacteristic 10 or 11 seconds, but he understands the importance of fast-cutting to contemporary action cinema. So we return to those beats. If you are looking for sickly, saturated cinematography that makes blood darker and gloopier then, on his debut dramatic feature, Roberto De Angelis is here to oblige.

Ambulance offers the sort of hurtling, amoral “good fun” that Bay supporters have, when kicking back at supposedly snooty critics, always claimed was his speciality. We are here for the explosions. We are here also for excellent, blackly humorous suspense sequences such as that in which González’s character is talked through a splenectomy (or something similar) by doctors dragged to their smartphones on the golf course.

Maybe Bay has lived long enough to become a legend. In oblique confirmation, Chris Fedak's screenplay – admittedly around since before the current director became attached – lets us know that Bay's The Rock exists in this universe. Sadly, a younger character, hearing it mentioned, assumes they are discussing Dwayne Johnson. Who knows where the time goes?

Opens on March 25th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist