'Ambulance': A True Michael Bay Film, For Better and For Worse
Whenever you hear the name Michael Bay, you likely think of explosions, frenetic camerawork, and big action sequences. Over the past few years, Bay has been a punching bag for many movie lovers, who have been very critical over his distinct brand of filmmaking. This reached a fever pitch with his Transformers movies, which caused many people to write him off as one of the worst directors currently working in Hollywood. While a lot of the criticism lobbed at him is valid, I feel that some of it is a bit hyperbolic. Michael Bay is not one of my favorite directors, and I don't care for most of his movies, but I can't help but appreciate him for having a specific style and sticking with it, even if it does sometimes comes to the film's detriment. I have a bit of a soft spot for his earlier films like The Rock and Armageddon, and enjoy them for the big, goofy, action films that they are. The rest of his work that I've seen doesn't do much for me, and ranges from being mediocre to straight up terrible. I felt that Bay wouldn't ever reach the heights of his earlier films, but he truly surprised me with his latest film, Ambulance. This film sees Bay operating on a smaller level than usual, but it pays off nicely, and gives us his best film in years.
I am of the firm belief that some directors need certain boundaries for them to thrive. In most cases, this means giving them a smaller budget, which forces them to get creative if they can't afford certain elements. Bay is definitely a filmmaker that falls into his category, as his smaller scale films tend to be much better than his big-budget ones. With the Transformers franchise, Bay had massive budgets and went overboard with many aspects of the films. This ended up being the downfall of many films in the series, and is a large part of why many people are so negative towards Bay. Ambulance was made on a 40 million budget, which gives him just enough for him to make some crazy choices with the film, but also keeps him from flying too close to the sun. The smaller budget also allows the film to feel more grounded in reality, despite the heightened characteristics that are commonplace in Bay's work. It helps the film have more of an emotional edge to it, and makes it easier to connect with on a slightly deeper level than I was expecting. This is a film that truly surprised me, from how great the action sequences are to how unpredictable certain plot elements are, as well as just how effective Bay's direction is.
The film is somewhat light on plot, which might be for the best given that it doesn't feel too convoluted. There are some details that seem to slip through the cracks, and some moments do feel a bit unrealistic, but it ends up being one of Bay's more grounded films to date, and when it focuses on its central conflict, it is quite gripping. The film is essentially one big car chase, and Bay keeps the adrenaline pumping all throughout the runtime. It is quite thrilling throughout and had me wondering exactly how everything was going to come together. While the film does have some beats that feel a bit reminiscent of other action movies, it is such an intense ride that I didn't mind it too much.
What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in style. Bay's manic filmmaking style is on full display, and it works perfectly for the film's big setpieces. The camerawork also contributes to this, as it prominently uses a more frenetic handheld style that captures the intensity of the film's action, and drone shots that are simply astounding to watch. There is a specific sequence that involves a surgery that is so intense and so well put together that I was holding my breath for most of it. While I think the action is pretty exciting to watch, I have to admit that certain sequences aren't well crafted too well. The shaky-cam and choppy editing doesn't always work, and occasionally muddles everything up. Bay's style does hurt in other moments as well, as he seems to hyper-focus on the action and put everything else off to the side. He does allow some of the emotional beats in regards to our three main characters play out a little, but Bay has never been one to deal with more mature themes or situations very well, so understandably, this doesn't fully work. I do think he's more successful in pulling this off in this film compared to some of his other work, yet he still falls short.
Michael Bay's films typically don't feature any spectacular acting, and while this is no exception, I couldn't help but be fascinated by Jake Gyllenhaal's wild performance. Gyllenhaal brings a strange energy to his role, which mostly works as it matches the film's manic nature. He is hamming it up a little, but he gives the one performance that really pops here, mainly because I am so intrigued by the acting choices that he makes. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a bit of a foil to him, and while he is playing more of the "good guy" role so to speak, he does play with some of the complexities of the situation he is in nicely, even if they don't always shine through here. Eiza Gonzalez's character feels a bit underwritten, but she brings enough pathos to the role to elevate it slightly. The rest of the cast does serviceable work, and doesn't make too much of an impact overall. It's not a big surprise that the performances aren't the film's strongest asset, but with some of the talent involved, it's still a little disappointing.
Ambulance might not necessarily be a "good movie" in the sense that it is well-crafted, or has a lot to say about anything, but it is the specific type of big, dumb action film that I can't help but like. I had an absolute blast watching it, even some of Michael Bay's directorial choices don't always work. It's still one of his better films, for what it's worth, and one that revels in his distinct brand of filmmaking for better and for worse. Does this film redeem Bay in any way? Not necessarily. I still consider him a mediocre director at best, and I'm not crazy about the bulk of his work. However, I can't help but appreciate how he has a specific style and sticks to it, even if it doesn't always work. Ambulance is easily one of the his films that favors his style a little better, but even it has its shortcomings. But it still is a rather entertaining watch, and if nothing else, it's a decent way to pass the time.