Ambulance Review: Michael Bay Goes Full Bayhem With A Feature-Length Chase And A Wild Jake Gyllenhaal Performance

"Ambulance" is a Michael Bay movie. For some folks, that's the only sentence of this review that matters. By now, Bay's ultra-shiny, ultra-chaotic style is so firmly established that you know what you're going to get — and you're likely either on board with that by now, or you think Bay is everything wrong with modern cinema. Me? I'm somewhere in the middle. I think Bay has made some true stinkers. I also think he's a genuine auteur, and when he gets it right (see: "The Rock," "Pain & Gain"), he can deliver a film that's wholly unique, warts and all. Bay, for his part, has no qualms about who he is or what he does (and why should he? Critics aside, his films usually make major bank). He is a filmmaker who knows what he likes, just as fetishistic about his cinematic obsessions as someone like Quentin Tarantino. "This is what I like," Bay shouts through a megaphone at his audience. "You can like it too, or you can buzz off." 

With "Ambulance," Bay continues to celebrate all-things-Bay, going full-Bayhem with a feature-length chase where certain characters will pause to quote lines from the Michael Bay movie "The Rock" or reference the Michael Bay movie "Bad Boys." That's right: Michael Bay exists within the world of this Michael Bay movie. And he's making more Michael Bay movies in that world. It's ridiculously meta. It's a snake swallowing its own tail. It's kind of great. 

Bay ups the ante here by bringing in drone cameras — and the director doesn't use drones like modern-day documentary filmmakers to simply get aerial establishing shots, oh no. He has his drones swoop, and swirl, and twirl, and flip. They buzz through open windows or abandoned buildings like flying insects; they dive-bomb the scenery like birds of prey. It's like Bay got a neat new toy and he just can't stop playing with it. Again, the unbridled Bayness of it all will either click with you or send you heading for the exit. Perhaps it speaks to the sorry state of modern movies, or maybe I'm just starved for some sort of entertaining distraction, but as I sat watching "Ambulance" in a Dolby theater, and felt my comfy seat vibrate with every explosion and burst of gunfire, I couldn't help but get swept up in it all. "Ambulance" does exactly what it sets out to do. Take it or leave it. 

Before the big, feature-length chase begins, "Ambulance" introduces us to its cast of characters. There's ex-soldier Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a stand-up guy trying to get insurance money to come through to pay for experimental surgery for his sick wife (Moses Ingram). Then there's Will's brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), who seems to have his fingers in various illegal pies all over Los Angeles. We learn that Danny's family took the orphaned Will in as a boy, and while a close bond formed between the adoptive brothers, they didn't exactly have an idyllic childhood. It's revealed that Danny and Will's father was a psychopathic bank robber, and he tried to pass his criminal trade on to his sons. Danny took to the idea — he's robbed 38 banks in the last year, we're told! — but Will did not. Desperate for money now, Will turns to Danny for help, expecting a loan. Danny makes a counter-offer: Will should come help rob a bank of $32 million. Ideally, Will would walk away from this. But then we wouldn't have a movie. So he goes along, swept up by his brother's manic enthusiasm. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Los Angeles, we meet Cam Thompson (Eiza González), an EMT who is described — and I'm not making this up — as "the best paramedic in town." Soon, these characters will collide.  

Gyllenhaal steals the show

González is appropriately fiery and tough as Cam, and Abdul-Mateen II is stoic and sympathetic as Will. We like these characters, especially Will — it would be easy to judge him, since he's ultimately a criminal who puts lives in danger. But Abdul-Mateen II carries himself with such dignity and poise that we accept his actions without question. But make no mistake: "Ambulance" belongs to Gyllenhaal. The actor has entered an interesting phase in his career. After trying on the traditional leading man costume and finding it didn't fit well, Gyllenhaal has embraced weirder and wilder roles. 

Here, it seems like Bay gave him free rein to go nuts, and that's exactly what Gyllenhaal does, spitting his lines out in a motor-mouth fashion that seems to suggest he's improvising the dialogue as he goes rather than reading from a script. He's frantic and sweaty, eyes wide, cracking jokes that don't really make sense. When his sweater gets sprayed by a fire extinguisher he angrily yells, "It's cashmere!" He behaves at all times as if he's just snorted the entire mountain of cocaine that sat on Al Pacino's desk at the end of "Scarface." If Bay's Tilt-A-Whirl filming style didn't thrill us, Gyllenhaal's performance would pick up the slack. In fact, the performance might be too successful, because it slowly becomes clear that we're supposed to think of Danny as a bad guy — and make no mistake, he does bad things — but gosh, it's just so much fun to watch Gyllenhaal have fun. 

As you might have guessed, the bank robbery goes horribly wrong. The rest of the crew is killed, and Danny and Will end up hijacking an ambulance to get away. And wouldn't you know it, Cam is in this ambulance! And so is a rookie cop (Jackson White) who has been shot by Will during the robbery. Now, in true "Speed" fashion, the ambulance rockets along through Los Angeles, refusing to stop, and the cops are in hot pursuit. Leading the charge is an aw-shucks lawman, played by a memorable Garret Dillahunt. He's the type of character willing to halt a chase in order to protect his beloved dog, who happens to be in the back seat of one of the pursuing cop cars. 

More and more characters keep showing up to complicate things, and almost none of them is fleshed out very well. The script, by Chris Fedak, is often quite clunky, and there are countless instances where automated dialog replacement, or looping, has been added so characters (always off-screen) can helpfully summarize what the hell is happening. Is someone's motivation not making sense? No matter! An ADR line will fix that up in a jiffy! And for all Bay's action prowess, he does have a tendency to get too close, rendering several moments visually indecipherable.

And yet ... "Ambulance" still works, because for all its flaws, it never lets up. It never really gives us a moment to stop and think about those flaws as we watch. That will come later, after we've left the confines of the theater. But as we watch, we're lost in the moment. Whenever a movie shows me something that seems new, I perk up. And "Ambulance" has that, in more than one regard. Not just with the way Bay uses drones, but also with the staging of several scenes themselves. The most notable is a bloody, darkly funny moment where Cam and Will have to perform life-saving surgery on the cop, literally cutting open and reaching into his stomach to pull out his spleen — which bursts in a fountain of blood! Since Cam isn't a surgeon, she calls her ex-boyfriend, a doctor. He, in turn, calls two surgeons out golfing. And soon, three doctors are video calling into the ambulance to watch the high-speed surgery unfold and offer comical guidance. I'm not saying "Ambulance" is original — hell, it's a remake of a Danish film from 2005. But I have never seen a sequence like this before, and to watch it here felt fresh and new. And that's a feeling I'm always chasing. So thank you, Michael Bay. I mean that. "Ambulance" is unlikely to convert those who loathe Michael Bay and all he creates. But if you're on board, you're in for one hell of a ride.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10