Critics (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) historically dismiss Michael Bay movies. The humor is lowbrow, the noise is cacophonic, the editing feels like the film reels (when they were shot on film) are being sliced up with a razor like a pile of cocaine on Scarface’s desk, and there are more explosions than actual human characters.
But here’s the thing – audiences eat his movies up. Listening to the crowd react to Ambulance, Michael Bay’s latest, after almost two years of empty theaters, was something of a treat. Maybe they know something we critics don’t. Bay paints with the broadest of strokes, but he also knows what audiences want to see in movies like this.
It’s strange how Bayhem has, in its way, come full circle. Bay’s movies have been trashed over the years, as all style no substance, but with the current crop of genre films over the past decade, Bay’s oeuvre almost feels delightfully nostalgic.
It turns out that I missed the amoral chaos of Michael Bay – at the very least, I can sit down to one of his action films and not have to have a glossary of terms to figure out who is who. There aren’t any continuity issues with a Michael Bay film – that word is too big to fit into Bay’s films’ vocabularies.
The honest truth is I enjoyed Ambulance quite a bit. Bay still knows how to orchestrate an action sequence as very few other directors can. His actors mostly yell their dialogue, but there are moments of poignancy and even subtlety.
Bay even seems to recognize that it is a different world since the Bad Boys days – Ambulance is still full of macho posturing, but he gives characters their agency and he even comments, in his way, on some pressing social issues. His commentary has all the grace of a sledgehammer, but I give him credit for attempting it. Maybe Michael Bay is growing up.
Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are brothers. Their father was a notorious bank robber, but while Danny seems to continue in his father’s trade, Will stays on the straight and narrow, joining the military at a young age and fighting in Afghanistan.
Upon his return home, Will marries and has a child, but living an honest life does not pay off for Will the way robbing banks has for Danny. Will’s wife Amy (Moses Ingram) needs emergency treatment, but insurance will not cover it. So along comes Danny with one last heist – if they’re successful, Will can pay off for the treatment and help his brother out, who he still cares for even though their lives have taken different paths.
But the heist goes south, and in their getaway Will accidentally shoots a cop (Jackson White). Will’s not a killer, so he and Danny manage to secure an ambulance helmed by Cam Thompson (Eiza González), a paramedic who is very good at her job. Will and Danny must try to get away, keep the cop alive, and elude what seems like every single police officer and FBI agent in Los Angeles.
That’s all you need, really. Ambulance is about 20 minutes too long, and you can see how shaving those minutes off the run time would have improved the film dramatically. But Bay is if nothing else consistent – his films have always been guilty of bloat. That’s fine.
What we do get is very entertaining – Mateen is earnest and compelling, Gyllenhaal is over the top and a lot of fun to watch, and without a doubt González is probably the best woman character ever in Bay’s catalog, given real agency and value. Bay actually seems to be maturing in his later years, and whether that’s a cynical choice he’s made or Bay is really changing his tune is a choice I leave for the audience to decide.
Bay even seems to be commenting on police issues – all the cops seem to be caricatures and one, Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt), is a full on cartoon. But there seems to be a different context here than Bay has shown in previous movies. Times have changed, and Bay acknowledges this. There is even a gay character that Bay treats respectfully – an FBI agent (Keir O’Donnell) who may have some history with the Sharp brothers.
Bay has added something new to his trademark Bayhem – drone photography. He uses them with all the joy of a kid on Christmas morning. His drones swoop, spin, dive, and flip through the action, and it takes a bit getting used to. To be frank, many of these sequences are amazingly shot, putting us right in the middle of the action.
It’s interesting to note that this is a mid-budget production, and Bay gets the most out of his $40 million dollar budget. He hasn’t lost his touch in that regard, and even has improved in some aspects. You can tell that Bay was paying attention when movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission: Impossible – Fallout upped their game on car chases.
I feel like I’ve been taking bites out of Michael Bay throughout this review, but I have to admit that Bay’s had a more interesting career than I anticipated back in the Bad Boys/Armageddon days. Ambulance is one of his better films – it stands proudly with Bad Boys 2, The Rock, and his masterpiece (yes, I’m serious) Pain & Gain.
Is Michael Bay becoming a better director in his later years, or are we all finally catching up to his genius? Hard to say. But it cannot be denied – Ambulance is wildly entertaining for what it offers. For a couple of hours, at least, it felt like the late 1990s – early 2000s again. If you’re nostalgic for those halcyon years, you’re going to have a blast.