Director: Michael Bay
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II & Eiza Gonzalez.
Review by Damocles.
Street combat has never looked quite as good.
Michael Bay isn’t really known as a subtle director. He’s famous for a winning formula that genuinely makes his films some of the most watchable action fare a cinema-goer can get.
Some of them you can guess, like his iconic use of explosives and sweeping vistas with helicopters cutting across the screen. Others are just trademarked now, like extremely intense performances, crazy lines that could only pass in a Bay film, gratuitous lens flares and more recently, a very fun use of gore.
Growing up, I was addicted to scenes of Bad Boys 2, (which is still easily one of my favourite films of all time) and was a bit dismayed when the director chose to commit far too many years to the Transformers franchise.
But the release of 6 Underground, which is easily one of the most over-the-top Bay movie ever conceived, slowly bought him back into contention as one of the most energetic, frenetic and bombastic action directors working today.
I enjoyed Ambulance far more than 6 Underground though.
There was a certain restraint placed on Bay’s excess, due to the much smaller budget and the literal confines of an ambulance set.
I have always believed that the best work a director can make, is when they are passionate about a project, but are placed under certain restrictions. This forces them to work smarter and harder, instead of indulging too much in their creativity.
In Ambulance, you can still feel the presence of Bay’s signature style and taste, with prominent American flags still displayed in almost every scene, lens flares popping in to spice up the frame, and frenetic camera moves that enhances the chaos of the action, instead of the actual choreography.
Watching a Bay film isn’t so much an appreciation of finely tuned and carefully crafted choreography, but more a sequences of what is absolutely cool to look at and how these shots relate to the overall chaos that Bay creates for his action set-pieces.
For example, one of the earliest shoot-outs involve many incredible shots of SWAT Officers walking in tandem towards the chaos, exchanging fire with criminals who are scrabbling around, finding cover. This will then be interspersed with shots of police cars, drifting into position, particles flying across the screen, and the latest arsenal in Bayhem … drone shots that sweep the chaos.
The geography is confusing, the editing and cutting is fast and furious and the cacophony of sound is intense, but that is the point of the action sequence. It sells the chaos of the street combat in a visceral manner that can only be done by Bay’s sense of timing and direction.
In terms of direction towards actors, like most who end up in a Bay production, the actors give it their all. Cam, played by Eiza Gonzalez is clearly the heart of the film, her straight edged performance matching well with the earnest one from Yahya’s Will Sharp.
However, nothing can quite top the insane intensity that is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Danny. There is a sociopathic and manic unhinged energy to his performance that makes him arresting to watch, and creates much needed chaotic and unpredictable drama to even the quiet moments.
It is also a testament to Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen II’s chemistry that they are able to effectively sell their formidable brotherhood, a bond that lasts all the way through the film.
It is that partnership that really sells the emotional element behind such a chaotic film, that is largely confined to the walls of the ambulance. The plot here is as thin as can be, effectively only used to sell audiences on the desperate moves of desperate people in desperate situations. It can be effectively summed up as “robbery gone wrong in LA” but such a simplistic summary doesn’t quite does justice to just how much Bay managed to wrangle out of such a simple premise.
Overall, the movie moves at a breakneck pace, slow only at the beginning to get you to care about the characters before shoving you head first into the wild chaos that Bay had in mind for his film. There are barely any moments to breathe, before the next insane action set-piece takes place.
From a cinematography perspective, Ambulance suffers or should I say, is enhanced by Bay’s classic use of advertising cinema. I use that word carefully, because watching Bay films is a lot like seeing a hyper intense version of a trailer. There is a clarity, colour and cool factor to his shot selections that makes them such visually interesting films. The use of lens flares, the dramatic close-ups, the quick cutting, the dramatic low angle shots … all of these create a reel that is never boring to look at.
As for the other parts of the production, I was struck by how authentic the weapons and extravagant the equipment used by the Law Enforcement was in the film. For a film that operated on a shoe-string budget, so much of the kit seen on screen had a real world authenticity to them and perfectly highlighted the differences between LE and the criminals they were fighting. This was in stark contrast to a film like the Gray Man, which had a much more hodge-podge aesthetic to the equipment used but with 4x the budget.
It should be said that Bay had a special relationship with LE throughout the production of Ambulance, and that many of the extras were active-duty police officers who wanted to be featured in the film, which explained why so many of the gear used looked so authentic.
Touching briefly on the score, Lorne Balfe returns to the world of Bayhem, by recycling a lot of his work in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. There is a sense of almost plagiarism to some of his slower, heroic melodies that were also employed in 13 Hours, and a lot of the action music was reminiscent, however with a more strange, almost angry beat to them, to heighten the street chaos being displayed on screen.
However, it should be said that in most Bay films, especially the action set-pieces, music has never really played a strong part in defining itself outside of the film. It is there to serve a purpose and that is ratchet up the atmosphere of what you are seeing on screen.
To sum up, Ambulance is an intense rollercoaster ride of a film, with barely any time to breathe. It is shot in a gritty, street-level way, with furious action that is only further enhanced by Bay’s trademarked style.
For a movie with a budget that is meant to temper Bay’s excess, this is definitely one of his better ones.
A scene to recall: Literally whenever Jake Gyllenhaal says something crazy. There are some lines that only he could deliver, the unhinged madman he is.