I’ve said it before and I’ll undoubtedly say it again…I have a Love / Hate relationship with the films of Michael Bay.
Going back to his high-concept debut with 1995’s surprisingly entertaining Bad Boys, I initially fell in love with his clearly Tony Scott (Top Gun) inspired, hyper-kinetic style. He continued to hone that visual panache the next year, with the James Bond-meets-Die Hard summer blockbuster The Rock (1996). It was after I’d been assaulted by the mind-numbing stupidity of 1998’s hilariously moronic and over-the-top Armageddon that I realized that when studio’s give the hyper-active man-child that is Michael Bay a ‘blank cheque’ for a film budget, the actual objective quality of the movie dips dramatically.
That trend continued, with vacuous, over-cooked flicks like 2001’s insulting Titanic-clone Pearl Harbor or 2003’s crudely immature Bad Boys 2. In my opinion, he had a slight rebound with 2005’s interesting science fiction failure The Island but slipped again with his coke-fuelled and typically misogynistic take on Hasbro’s most popular 1980’s toy-line, 2007’s Transformers, the success of which unfortunately shat out a franchise of seriously diminishing returns, creatively speaking. As a result, I essentially wrote him off, as I can’t bring myself to dedicate any minutes of my life to what he was senselessly pumping into theatres. But then something happened in 2013 and he released what was, by his lofty standards, a small budgeted crime / comedy, based on a horrible true story, called Pain and Gain, starring Mark Wahlberg and The Rock, among others. I have to admit, as ghoulish and in poor-taste as the execution of this movie is, being that it’s based on a bizarre series of terrible crimes that occurred in the nineties, I had a good time with it! I like my humor dark, and that one fit the bill. It also helped that the smaller budget seemed to have reined in Mr. Bay’s more obnoxious sensibilities and forced a bit more in the way of creativity. Then, as if to confirm my suspicions, he came in under the radar in 2016 with another inspired-by-true events film – 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, a film that thoroughly impressed me with it’s effective tension-building and Black Hawk Down-like grit and carnage, and that kinda sorta helped get me back on something resembling Team Bay, but with a caveat: Michael’s Bay’s films come close to, and sometimes genuinely are, Good, though seemingly only when there’s restraint forced upon him. Let the man-child run wild and you get shit-show’s like some of the examples I listed earlier. Shrink that production budget down a bit and give him a straightforward narrative to follow and the guy can actually produce to entertain.
And it’s based on that point, that I was genuinely curious about his latest, last year’s Jake Gyllenhaal-starring bank heist action movie, Ambulance. I toyed with seeing it in the theatre, but Life got in the way and it passed me by. For unrelated reasons, my wife and I just recently fired our Crave subscription up again and low and behold, there it was. So, on a tipsy Saturday night, over a small feast of delivery grub, we slapped it on and went for a ride in an Ambulance.
Ambulance takes place in contemporary Los Angeles, as only Michael Bay can show it, and we first meet down-on-his-luck fella named ‘Will Sharp’ (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) whose wife is sick and in need of treatment that’s well outside his pay grade. Realizing he has severely limited options, he goes to visit his strangely well-off adopted brother ‘Danny Sharp’ (Jake Gyllenhaal) to try and land either a loan or a job. It just so happens that this is the same day that ‘Danny’ plans to lead a daring bank heist and needs another man. Reluctantly, ‘Will’ joins the crew. During the heist, a young cop wanders into the midst of the shenanigans and takes a life-threatening bullet for his troubles, which then sparks a wild chase through LA with a stolen ambulance, a dying cop and a captive EMT named ‘Cam’ (Eiza Gonzalez) along for the ride.
Ambulance was not as good as I hoped…but we were mostly still entertained. Being a Michael Bay movie, his expected stylistic -fingerprints are all over it and there were a few times when I was distinctly reminded of the undeniable influence of the aforementioned and sadly late(great!) Tony Scott…and that’s not a bad thing.
But speaking of bad things…
Some of the narrative was clumsy and noticeably rushed, especially in Act One. The reliance on coincidence was plain as day and there were a few sequences where we both scoffed as they played out, with the most obvious being, simply, the circumstances that put ‘Will’ into the middle of the robbery to begin with – he just happens to drop in unannounced on his estranged ‘bro’, not just on the day said bro is executing a daring bank heist, but on the very fucking hour that the group is kicking off AND, coincidentally, in need of an extra hand.
I get that they want to get into the action, but some finessing in the narrative could’ve gone a long way. And speaking of LONG ways, this movie has NO business coming in with a bloated 2 hour 16 minute runtime. This is a remake of a Danish flick from 2005 and is apparently almost a full hour longer than the Scandinavian original! There’s no reason for it, given the lean, high-concept idea at the core, and there were times where some sequences, most noticeably in Act Two, felt somewhat wash-rinse-repeat’d, and could’ve benefited with a tightening of the pace.
Then there’s the music. The score is composed by some guy I’ve never heard of named Lorne Balfe and some of the choices were a little baffling. For starters, there’s no real progression to the music. It starts off with creeping tense tones that build and build, but the problem is that this starts with literally the first scene and then plays out the same, again and again, with very little variation, in seemingly every other scene and I swear that’s not an exaggeration.
Also not an exaggeration is Bay’s still highly inflated ego, as there isn’t just one or two…but FIVE separate references to other films from his own filmography! The first couple were chuckle-worthy, but then it was just him sucking his own dick…and it wasn’t pretty.
Michael Bay is gonna Michael Bay.
In the Plus Column, the movie does boast an expectedly slick and stylish look, the action scenes, the Bayhem, are kinetic and loud, and everyone looks good. It also seems that Michael Bay has discovered these new thingys called drones and he goes ape-shit with them, having the camera zip around and through scenes like crazy, over and over again. This is mostly cool…until you realize just how often he’s using the same drone moves and the novelty starts wearing thin. The cast is decent, with Gyllenhaal bringing a strange energy to his not bad-still bad Bad Guy ‘Danny’ and Abdul-Mateen II comes in as a passable and understated foil. Aside from the always amusing Garrett Dillahunt (Deadwood), the rest of the cast are relative unknowns, but they serve their purpose.
All in all, Ambulance is pure middle-of-the-road Michael Bay and, depending how you feel about the guy’s movies, I’m sure that will point you in one direction or the other. Not as good as some of his past films but DEFINITELY better than some of his more recent attempts. I’d stand it side-by-side with The Island, as over all quality and entertainment value go. You could do better…but you can also certainly do worse.