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
with Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eiza González and Garret Dillahunt
opens in theaters April 8 courtesy of Universal
Loosely based on that of Larits Munch-Petersen paramedic, the English-language remake by Michael Bay and Chris Fedak expands and localizes this old-school high-concept programmer. Working with his lowest budget for an action movie (pain and gain cost $26 million in 2013) since his feature debut Bad Boys in 1995, the 40 million dollars Ambulance is the Michael Bay equivalent of a Blumhouse bedroom piece. Most of its runtime takes place in a single cramped location with three talking figures. But because it’s Bay, the location is an ambulance driving through Los Angeles with an entire police department hot on its heels.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as an Afghan war veteran struggling with a newborn baby and his wife’s medical bills, namely an experimental surgery that his insurance refuses to cover. Reluctantly (and secretly) visiting his adopted professional criminal brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), the desperate father reluctantly finds himself in a planned bank robbery that takes place just that day (a coincidence you’ll only get ‘rolling). The heist turns sour and our brothers end up, cash in hand, hijacking an ambulance containing an injured cop (Jackson White) and a paramedic (Eiza González).
The 135-minute picture takes its time to set up its characters and the bank robbery is staged for understated tension and suspense over madcap intensity. Yes, the cops show up and there’s a public shootout straight out of Heat, but (for obvious moral reasons) the only victims are the bank robbers who aren’t played by movie stars. It’s not The corrupter (which had action scenes in which innocent civilians were turned into Swiss cheese), and Bay knows exactly how much carnage these anti-heroes can cause (to put their freedom and safety at risk) while remaining friendly.
One of the strengths of the movie is that, in part because of Bay’s obvious adoration of first responders, we find ourselves supporting both sides of the pursuit. Garret Dillahunt plays the main local cop on the scene, with a drooling dog who ends up accidentally fending off gunfire, while Keir O’Donnell plays the FBI’s top guy who A) is openly gay and sadly married and B) was college friends with Gyllenhaal’s The Bank Robber. While some plot developments depend on coincidence, all cops and robbers are at least as smart as the average viewer.
While that average 75 minutes is a long car chase, Fedak’s storyline finds ways to spice up the drama as Bay uses drone cameras to ping-pong here and everywhere with the utmost of ease. The hostage police officer was injured in the robbery, so there’s an added incentive to make sure he doesn’t succumb to his injuries, and we get a jaw-dropping scene where our heroic paramedic has to perform emergency surgery in a high-speed vehicle while being talked through the procedure by various doctors and specialists. For the first 95 minutes, it’s great entertainment.
Alas, Bay can’t help but stretch out this third act in the name of conventional action and melodrama. As The rock, sympathetic “villains” need secondary villains and a heel turn to provide redeeming action. However, A) the third party engages in acts of violence that would increase the criminal penalties and B) the film returns to a small-scale climax. Not an exact match, but I was called back Live free or die hard which took a brief detour to John McClane fighting a fighter jet before returning to a small-scale character-driven conclusion.
That said, a bloated, redundant 45-minute finale doesn’t remotely undo the hour-and-a-half procedural, or fatally hurt the proper climax. Olivia Stambouliah is riot funny as a tech savvy above all else, while Dillahunt is expertly cast to type. It’s nice to see González get a real character to play beyond being ridiculously good looking (see also: I care a lot). Abdul-Mateen II continues to own the screen no matter the film, while Gyllenhaal enjoys playing a borderline psychopath who is just moral enough to want to ensure an ideal outcome for his brother.
Ambulance delivers the so-called Bayham as well as a shamelessly melodramatic streak that threatens to make us care. Although it generally runs at maximum speed, it is intelligently paced to prevent burnout and fatigue and only stumbles when trying to deliver more than its core premise. The film stretches its budget to an impressive degree, though it occasionally relies on close-ups that hide the costs, and is as satisfying as any action movie Bay has made since. The rock. I mean, I have a thing for Transformers: Age of Extinctionbut i’m weird like that.