I’d be safe and warm / If I was in L.A.The Mamas and the Papas, “California Dreamin'”
A colossal bullet careens through the concrete jungle, hacking and slashing through the interwoven chaos of steel and glass foliage, rubber shredding upon asphalt and flame spilling forth in a wake of destruction and insanity. A last resort losing control of the wheel, spiraling quickly until a thousand threads of perfectly calculated manic misfortune all collide atop the impossibly complex lacing of highway interchanges, bursting forth into full tilt, pedal to the medal cinema that refuses to take a breath or back down – for better and for worse.
Michael Bay’s Ambulance is the appropriately ostentatious and maximalist zenith of American blockbuster filmmaking; a high budget, high octane, bloated mess with seemingly constant disregard for anything that might come remotely close to being meaningful. It’s obscenely overproduced, the editing frequently becomes actively frustrating, and the entire approach and direction of the filmmaking shifts entirely multiple times throughout. Despite it all, it manages to work with exceptional ease, so steadfast in its explosive absurdity that it refuses to ever lose its visual momentum or the constant supply of adrenaline it injects directly into your veins. What’s most impressive is how close it comes to pulling off some kind of miraculous masterpiece of modern action filmmaking, what’s equally disappointing is just how carelessly it abandons all the pieces that could firmly place it in that space.
The setup is as old as time and unfortunately ubiquitous: an honorable and decorated veteran (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is now struggling to make ends meet, and his wife, stricken with cancer, is on her last chance, in desperate need of an experimental and ludicrously expensive surgery that insurance refuses to cover. It’s time for one last job to keep his family stable. Though it’s been seen a thousand times before, it remains a premise with twofold potential – both as a way to interrogate America’s crumbling healthcare system and frequent disregard for veterans, as well as a way to indict the fact that this familiar premise has remained completely believable for so long. Before long, Ambulance manages to start roping in even more core failures of America’s failing institutions, ratcheting its healthcare angle to 11 as it quickly moves the entire film to the interior of a speeding ambulance where lives are constantly attempting to be saved, while surrounded by gunfire and a militarized police presence that releases a hailstorm of bullets across the city streets of Los Angeles the second a bank robbery is attempted, splattering the city with blood and empty casings in the fervent pursuit of justice. Of course, it’s all just set dressing. It never means anything. By the end, it seems it really can’t mean anything, all just a means to a contrived end that’s almost insultingly melodramatic and nonsensical.
As the film begins to wind the tension in its first act, taking Abdul-Mateen’s cool and collected Will Sharp and throwing him into the whirlwind of chaos that is his brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), a lot of the misgivings of its construction fall to the wayside. Gyllenhaal’s performance is absurdly overcranked to the point of pure delirium and his magnetic presence manages to bend the film to his will, and as frequently easy as it may be to dismiss Bay’s insane direction, the first time a drone starts flying from the top of the LA skyline down to the burning tire of a speeding ambulance at mach speed, it’s even easier to stop caring entirely about just how nauseatingly over-stylized it all is. For the most part, it works, and when it all clicks together, it works exceptionally well, a pitch perfect thrill ride through the weaving chaos of the city with a heart-pounding, room-shaking score by Lorne Balfe. During these moments, none of the narrative failings matter in the slightest, because it’s Bay dialed to the max and completely unhinged in the best way possible, an action thriller at full speed and proud of it.
Unfortunately for Ambulance, Bay dialed to the max hits a point of failure eventually, and when that razor thin tension line snaps, there’s nothing left to hold it all together. Eventually, the ambulance runs out of gas, and the film seems to have completely written itself into a corner. After all, where do you go when the film is so hyperfocused on a car chase and its underlying cat and mouse game between criminal and law enforcement? From early on, it’s clear there’s no easy way out of this, and options for the endgame are increasingly limited until it just sort of ends, and a big indefinite shrug at the end of a 135 minute thriller is far from the punch of a landing anyone desires. It’s almost a pointed challenge – a film so frustratingly constructed, full of every necessary trope and tired cliché, meeting the expectation of its director’s trademark penchant for destruction and explosions, maintaining almost no substance – and yet it’s almost impossible to have a truly terrible experience when Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen start belting out Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” at the top of their lungs while flying down the 405 at 80 miles an hour. It might come to the most completely rote platitude of a conclusion possible, but the destination doesn’t matter too much when the journey there is manages to maintain such a potent level of adrenaline. Hop in and enjoy the ride.