If you were taken into a screening blindfolded and asked to definitively say – in the absence of opening credits – who directed the movie based solely on what it looked like, how many minutes would it take you to identify a Michael Bay movie? One? Two? Under a minute? Fair enough, the jig would be up the minute you saw a car transform, but I think a statistical audience member who doesn’t skip his blockbusters would likely identify a Bay-directed effort rather quickly just by putting together the confluence of hard and fast cuts, the golden hour sheen, canted angles, orbiting shots and era-appropriate pop/rap music blaring through the speakers.
Well, let’s just say it would take you a bit longer to identify Bay’s direction from the opening of his latest movie, Ambulance; in fact, it would seem as though for the first time in his career, Michael Bay was either suppressing his proclivities or actively attempting to reinvent himself a tad. The movie opens not with a bang of in media res action, but with carefully staged close-ups of Yahya Abdul-Mateen’s character Will as he speaks over the phone with his health insurance provider and finds out they are not going to cover his wife’s exorbitant medical bills. As he learns all this soul-shattering information, the camera glazes over the living room where we see mementos of Will’s tours of duty abroad. We learn he is an army veteran who sacrificed the best years of his life to serve his country. We then proceed to sit in on the follow-up conversation with his wife. They share a few moments while the camera encroaches on their personal space and closes the distance between you and them. Post-rock soundscapes fill in the moments of silence as they speak… at which point you’d be well within your rights to ask if this movie was directed by Peter Berg and if this was a stealth remake of Deepwater Horizon.
Granted, you wouldn’t be too far off-piste if you surmised that Peter Berg’s aesthetic borrows heavily from Michael Bay anyway, to which I would be willing to add a minute clarification that it is more likely they were both drawing heavily from Tony Scott and their overlap was an organic consequence of their shared body of inspiration. Even though they both traverse the same landscape of stories they like to tell, Berg has consistently (though not always) favoured the idea of letting his characters do the heavy lifting while Bay would more frequently side-line any form of character work in favour of what he considered a cool-looking spectacle. And at least in the opening minutes of Ambulance, it looked as though Bay was ready to embrace change and maybe pick up a thing or two from guys like Pete Berg.
But a man can only hold his breath for so long…
Because that’s what Michael Bay is doing in the opening of this movie. He is not embracing change, widening his horizons, mellowing or – heavens forbid – maturing. He is merely holding his breath and after few minutes he cannot pretend any more. He must revert to his old ways and it’s all downhill from there.
The story quickly covers important beats of introducing Cam (Eiza González), a quick-witted and (initially) endearingly abrasive EMT who is about to cross paths with Will and his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal, for whom this is the second appearance in a Hollywood remake of a Danish thriller, after The Guilty) who have decided to go and rob a bank. Thus, the narrative wheels are set in motion and what began as a character-grounded piece of blockbuster storytelling with a potential to say something relevant about the state of American healthcare has now decidedly snowballed into a familiarly shaped avalanche of explosions, car crashes and firefights.
However, this isn’t where the problem is. Not only do I not mind brainless spectacles, but I was also there for it. Even though Ambulance was shamelessly riding on the shoulders of Michael Mann’s Heat in the way it was crafting its opening major set piece involving a heist-gone-wrong and a set-up for an elaborate car chase that would take up most of the film’s running time, I was actively looking forward to participating in it, partly due to the abject dearth of non-franchise blockbusters making their way to the big screen nowadays. I wanted the action. I wanted the thrills. I needed the explosions and a little part of me truly looked forward to a new Michael Bay movie, which I had expected would be nothing but offensively dumb, but nonetheless superficially effective.
Sadly, this isn’t what I got. What I got instead was sea sickness.
I would really love to be able to say that I watched Ambulance with unflinching attention, but I cannot do that. Periodically, in the interest of my own well-being and the well-being of those around me, I was forced to look away from the action and focus on the corner of the screen while maintaining a steady rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, to ensure the contents of my stomach wouldn’t find its way outside. And let us be clear here: this is not due to violence and gore, which Ambulance does not shy away from. It is rather thanks to the fact this entire movie (apart from its very beginning, which I already touched upon), is a cocktail of hand-held close-ups panning frantically in all directions and extremely elaborate crash zooms accomplished using drones edited together using the age-old music video philosophy of not allowing the camera to linger on any given shot for more than a second.
Now, for sake of complete transparency I would like to extend an olive branch and admit that some elements of this movie – technically speaking – are interesting and creative. Some of the shots Michael Bay finds cool are cool and innovative. It’s fun to see a well-executed shot in which a drone-mounted camera scales the side of a building, does a backflip and levels off low enough to enter the titular ambulance and find the characters embroiled in a gory affair where one person is holding her entire hand inside another man’s abdomen, another is holding a gun and the third one is frantically screaming at everyone from the driver’s cabin. It is an interesting set-up that frees the filmmaker from the shackles of a crane or a Steadicam rig and allows them to bring some freshness to the table… when used in moderation.
Sadly, this word does not exist in Michael Bay’s lexicon. This man sees moderation as a sign of weakness, so he over-commits to this new-found gimmick to a point where he seems completely incapable of covering a simple conversation – a brief opportunity for respite from the action – with a simple shot-reverse-shot methodology or… locking the camera off on a tripod (a camera technique Michael Bay is unfamiliar with). So, after a little while, the movie becomes physically taxing and completely disorienting because our bearings are constantly upset by the rapidly changing camera angles. This movie is a rollercoaster of the worst kind – one that doesn’t excite anywhere near as much as it nauseates. Therefore, I am sad to report that Ambulance is not entertaining at all. It is physically tiring and hence I cannot recommend that anyone should go out and watch it on the big screen.
However, this is where I extend an olive branch once more, as this movie might be best experienced in the comfort of your own home; somewhere you are in control of pausing the film if it affects your equilibrium the way it affected mine in the cinema. In fact, I am more than happy to revisit it under such circumstances myself to make sure I give it a fair shake. Though, from what I managed to take in in between bouts of fighting against my own gag reflex, I don’t think Ambulance is likely to become a favourite of mine because on top of being shot and edited in such an inconsiderate manner, the movie is also a highlight reel of the most abrasive and indulgent clichés Michael Bay’s movies have always had in spades.
Let’s be honest, none of the characters have any meaningful depth, their personalities are collages of stereotypes, and their motivations are not the best. What is more, because the film most assuredly chooses to pursue a big spectacle and quite expectedly diverts attention from the characters, none of the actors get to spread their wings or even get a fighting chance to properly inhabit their roles. Gyllenhaal, Abdul-Mateen and González are all simple puppets in the hands of a teenager trapped in the body of a fifty-seven-year-old man, whose role is to merely liven up the orgy of explosions and car chases with snazzy one-liners and occasional bouts of screaming, all the while Bay is busy directing the drone operator to do a barrel roll.
I’m sorry to report that Ambulance is quite simply unwatchable. Even though its spectacle could work on the basis of drawing from a bunch of much more successful movies like Heat, Speed and others, the filmmakers consciously decided to oversaturate the movie with camera gimmickry and incessantly disorienting editing which makes The Bourne Ultimatum look like Caché, so much that even the most egregious Bay-isms rampant in his other movies would easily go unnoticed. In fact, these specific directorial decisions render the spectacle – the arguable soul of this movie – immeasurably dissatisfying. I don’t mind a good rollercoaster ride. But a good ride is one that leaves my legs shaking and my veins pumping with adrenaline. This movie is a ride that leaves your shirt vomit-stained, your ego bruised, and your day utterly ruined.