What to Watch Verdict
Ambulance deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with explosions rattling your seat and blasting your eardrums.
Escalating tension that never lets up
Jake Gyllenhaal hams it up beautifully
Some of the best practical car crashes this side of Mad Max: Fury Road
Fetishizes police power
Camera occasionally loses track of the action
Much-maligned director Michael Bay is not entirely undeserving of his reputation as someone more interested in explosions than story, but it’s worth noting that for every Transformers he’s directed, there’s a Pain and Gain or The Rock. So consider it a welcome surprise that Ambulance somehow not only manages to avoid some of Bay’s worst impulses as a director, but actually plays into his strengths, building a tense and exciting car chase thriller around the bones of the foreign film Ambulencen, rewritten by screenwriter Chris Fedak (Legends of Tomorrow).
As Marine veteran Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) struggles with mounting medical bills for his wife (Moses Ingram), he turns to his criminally-enterprising brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal, in full-on neurotic shouting mode) to see if he can make a quick score and get out. It just so happens that Danny has put together a bank heist that day and Will fits in perfectly as an imposing gunman.
However, Danny’s absurdly incompetent crew ends up royally botching the job, leaving Danny and Will alone, stealing an ambulance containing an antisocial paramedic (Eiza González) and the barely-conscious cop (Jackson White) that Will inadvertently shot.
The emphasis on Will’s and Danny’s relationship and the absurdity of the heist brings the first act of the film down slightly, but once they’re in the ambulance, this becomes Michael Bay’s answer to Speed. Tension keeps ratcheting higher and higher, always pushing to the point where you think there can’t possibly be any more complications to the situation, yet things always can and inevitably will get worse for Will and Danny, especially as their brotherly bond threatens to crumble entirely.
This manifests through the frantic car chase throughout Los Angeles, but the constant struggle to keep their cop hostage alive is just as dire, if not sometimes more so with the threat of lethal police retaliation looming.
The cat-and-mouse dynamics of the chase do unfortunately play into Bay’s particularly fetishistic and uncritical appreciation of police power, but the film is so good at making the immediacy of the chase the focus of your attention there’s hardly time to think about the subtext. The mountains of practically-shot car crashes are some of the most thrilling seen in a major blockbuster since Mad Max: Fury Road and Bay’s trademark jittery camera knows how to stay still long enough that you can see every steel-twisting second of a collision.
Of course, great action needs sufficient emotional context in order to be truly effective. Thankfully Bay and Fedak do a stellar job of investing life and personality into the personas of even the most bit characters. You get glimpses into the inner lives of various police, an FBI agent, Danny’s crimelord accomplice and even Danny’s civilian employee. Their performances are punctuated by hyper-masculine banter that feels remarkably restrained for Bay, thereby making it funnier.
The biggest issue with Ambulance is sometimes the frantic camera movements can make it easy to lose track of the action during particularly harrowing scenes in the cramped confines of the emergency vehicle, but it still works as an aesthetic choice while the film continues to climb in intensity throughout.
At the end of the day, Ambulance's minor issues can be forgiven for the sake of enjoying some truly edge-of-your-seat filmmaking, a throwback to the kinds of action films that dominated the 1990s but seem to be an increasing rarity in a world saturated with superheroes. This deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with explosions rattling your seat and blasting your eardrums. It's Michael Bay at his best, as Ambulance reminds you that when he’s on his game, he can light the world on fire.
Ambulance is now playing in the UK and opens in US theaters on April 8.
Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.