Director – Michael Bay – 2022 – US – Cert. 15 – 136m
Two bank robbers shoot an LAPD officer then hijack as a getaway vehicle the ambulance that came to rescue him – out in cinemas on Friday, March 25th
In need of money for his wife’s experimental cancer treatment, army veteran Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from The Matrix: Resurrections) approaches Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), the brother he grew up with in his adoptive family. Said family’s patriarch was unfortunately a career criminal and psychopath, and the former element can be found in Danny. Will expects he might get roped into some minor criminal activity, but what he absolutely isn’t expecting is to become part of the $32m heist.
Danny thinks on his feet, and has to improvise when a cop unaware there’s a robbery in progress talks his way into the bank hoping to chat up one of the tellers. Officer Zach (Jackson White) becomes first hostage then casualty, shot point-blank in the heat of the moment by Will. Hearing the “officer down” alert, highly proficient paramedic Cam Thompson (Eiza González) arrives in her ambulance on the scene only to be hijacked by the robbers and their victim, who becomes her patient she intends to keep alive. But with most of their supporting crew dead or wounded, the two robbers aren’t going to simply take the ambulance to the hospital when they need it as a getaway vehicle.
This extraordinary script by Chris Fedak adapts that of the Danish thriller Ambulance (Laurits Munch-Petersen, 2005) and is as interested in the dynamics between these four characters and their confinement within the space of one four-wheeled vehicle as it is in orchestrating a cops and robbers car chase of an ambulance. All four actors give terrific performances (the wounded cop, admittedly, is unconscious much of the time and consequently White has less to do) often magnified in intensity by virtue of the camera being very close in on them in the confined space of the vehicle while they act in a deceptively sparse ambulance set that has been heavily designed and dressed so that images shot within it look most impressive on the biggest screen imaginable.
It’s a strange feeling to watch a Michael Bay picture with really well-written characters. Bay is a master at orchestrating mayhem with the camera, although for this writer that on its own has never quite been enough to make a great movie. But Fedak’s script feels like the missing ingredient, so that while you expectedly thrill at Bay’s visual handling of the robbery initially going wrong, the car (and helicopter) chases, the shoot-outs and one extraordinary sequence involving snipers on a bridge as the ambulance heads towards it, the core of the drama anchors the whole thing.
Thus, when Bay utilises state-of-the-art drone shots, helicopter shots and often has the camera gratuitously climb up, around or descend from tall buildings at the opening of action shots or employs bravura editing techniques, the piece becomes generally thrilling in a way that no other movie of his that I’ve seen ever does, despite similar levels of technical proficiency. For this writer, it’s actually something of a shock to see Bay, a director whose bombasticism I normally dislike intensely, creating a truly extraordinary action movie. He’s long been an efficient director of mayhem whose movies are as disposable as they are huge tent pole events. This one, though, has something much more solid underneath it even as it delivers all his trademark touches.
Movies are a collaborative medium, and it’s probably impossible to separate the contribution of screenwriter and director here in what has clearly been a most fruitful relationship. There are some great supporting roles: a grizzled special ops policeman Captain Monroe (Garrett Dillahunt) and the efficient young computer wizard Lieutenant Dhazghig (Olivia Stambouliah, arguably the best thing in the film) he finds himself partnered with who tells him, “no time for flirting, you’re on the clock”, not to mention gay FBI Agent Clark (Keir O’Donnell) who is unsure of Monroe’s unorthodox methods.
At the same time, there’s something almost one-dimensional about all this. If the film is to be believed, all men are ultimately people who solve problems with violence or guns while women are healers. That’s not true in real life and, actually, it’s not true if you look at the minor characters here, such as the male, golf-playing trauma doctors (!) Cam must phone in order to stop profuse internal bleeding in her patient. Yet they’re very much in the background: this is a Hollywood movie, and the three central characters dominate.
In short, despite its shortcomings, this is a really impressive movie, never mind action movie, something I never thought I’d find myself writing about a Michael Bay film. More predictably, it also benefits hugely from being seen on a really big screen.
Ambulance is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 25th.