HomeMoviesMichael Bay's 'Ambulance' is Thrilling Cinema

Michael Bay’s ‘Ambulance’ is Thrilling Cinema

Yahya Abdul-Mateen III and Jake Gyllenhaal in Michael Bay's AMBULANCE.
Photo Courtesy Universal Pictures

Michael Bay’s cinema is one of relentless, violent subjectivity. His sickeningly tight, shaky close-ups and unexpected money shots were always a feature, not a bug, and this style lends itself magnificently to the claustrophobic and moral tension of his latest film, Ambulance.

A remake of the 2005 Danish film of the same name, Ambulance is a heist thriller about brothers Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Danny followed in their bank robber father’s footsteps, pursuing a life of crime for great material gain. Will’s (Michael Bay-oriented) conscience got the best of him, so he gave up that life to join the military in the hopes of finding a proper purpose, to do some good. Unfortunately, doing some good doesn’t come with adequate health insurance, and when Will’s wife, Amy (Moses Ingram), needs an expensive surgery, Will looks to his brother for help.

And help he has, by means of just one little job. They’ll get $32 million from a bank, they’ll get out of the bank in their prescribed getaway vehicle, and, best of all for Will, nobody will get hurt! They do get the money, but everything else goes to hell in a hand basket. Danny and Will are the only survivors of their crew, and their new getaway vehicle is an ambulance with an EMT (Cam, played by Eiza Gonzalez). Cam is trying to stabilize a cop (Zach, played by Jackson White), who Will shot.

This setup requires a simultaneous sense of claustrophobia and propulsion. Going from those close-ups inside the ambulance to some astonishing exterior drone cinematography, Ambulance is beautifully disorienting madness. When I heard the praise for the drone cinematography in the film, I just expected some faster, more dynamic helicopter shots. This is not the case. Yes, the skyline shots are more energetic, but the drones are mostly used for their versatility, allowing different types of compositions to flow together, in previously impossible shots. The camera flies underneath a police car to over the hood of another within seconds. The camera goes from what appears to be a “dolly shot” to a “helicopter shot” like it’s nothing.

This revolutionary drone work (from cinematographer Roberto De Angelis and a team of drone pilots and technicians) takes Bay’s energy to new heights. Conversely, Bay’s tight close-ups have never been more impactful. Everyone is so hyper-fixated on their own world that their surroundings are often lost on them. When an officer tries to inspect the ambulance, Danny has a gun to the officer’s oblivious head. It’s mere inches away, but for the officer, who is looking at the dying rookie in front of him, what is inches to his right may as well be miles away.

Ambulance’s filmmaking may be madness, but it’s madness that finds its moral center in Cam. Cam’s first scene has her at a car crash, caring for a little girl named Lindsey who is stuck in the car with a horrible injury. In addition to taking care of the girl physically, Cam knows to take care of Lindsey emotionally, to watch out for the overwhelming sensory experience Lindsey is going through. It’s an almost humbling moment for the audience: in a film full of gunfire and explosions, the sensory experience of a power saw cutting through metal may seem like chump-change to the viewer, but it’s terrifying to a confused, injured child. It’s a heart wrenching scene, with an emotional score that would fit the triumphant climax of any epic. And it’s a score that cuts out as soon as Lindsey’s in the hospital, establishing this as just another day for Cam. The music doesn’t cut out because Cam doesn’t care, but because Cam’s job is done, and she needs to be ready for the next one. Of course, the next one so happens to put her with Danny and Will, and Cam being the moral center of this situation is both unfathomable and completely necessary.

Interestingly, the actual morality of the bank robbery itself is rarely, if ever, discussed. This isn’t to say the film justifies robbing banks, but it does acknowledge that life or death situations have a lot more nuance—especially with the variety of groups at play. The moral drama is not limited to “cops vs. robbers”, because there’s different types of cops who butt heads, and different types of robbers who butt heads, and Cam has to wade through this hyper-violent moral territory with focus and finesse. She also has common ground with nearly every character, but this common ground is often exploited antagonistically by the other character. Both Cam and Danny want to keep the cop alive, but Danny only wants him alive as a bargaining chip. Cam sees Will’s devotion to his family as his path to redemption, while an FBI agent (Keir O’Donnell) sees Will’s qualities as a weakness to be exploited.

Danny is a particularly nasty presence that Cam has to keep an eye on. If Cam is the “moral” part of this moral crisis, Danny is (more or less) the crisis. He’s the reason for the heist, the reason for the kidnapping. “We’re a shark”, he says, “we don’t stop.”

It can’t be understated that Bay and Gyllenhaal are an unexpected match made in heaven. This isn’t to diminish the works of the other leads, as they’re all magnificent, but Gyllenhaal’s classic leading man looks, expressive energy, and vicious mannerisms fill Bay’s frame and match Bay’s energy perfectly. When this passion is used to protect Will, it’s admirable, even emotional. When Will shoots Officer Zach, Danny is desperate to get him out of there. Will wants to help the dying man, but Danny doesn’t want his brother to get a life sentence. The equally intense motivations are communicated in a violent two shot, the shaking camera simultaneously communicating Will’s desperation to save the officer and Danny’s desperation to get Will out of there.

It’s powerful stuff, but when this passion is used for anything else, he’s a ticking time bomb. Anything can set him off and the closest thing to defusing this bomb is Will, who finds himself subservient to it more than anything. Because through it all, through all the political madness, the dynamics of the different gangs, the different police, the dramatic center of Ambulance is the relationship of these brothers and how Cam navigates this territory.

The way these three influence each other, how these influences affect the outside world, and how it will affect their own survival–regardless of their intentions–will have an indescribable impact on their outside world. And, regardless of their initial intentions, however good those intentions may have been, Ambulance understands that it’s what they do now that matters.

Ambulance is now playing in theaters.


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