Ambulance (2022), Michael Bay [3/5]
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
I grew up in the early 2000s and my first memory of a summer blockbuster on the big screen is Michael Bay's Transformers. This was before the decline of the mid-budget movie and rom-com star (read more) and before the rise of streaming and Disney's acquisition of Marvel (which kicked the franchise film era into high gear). It was a naive time in moviemaking, when derision of superficial action movies could be waved away as snobbery as opposed to urgent prophecy of the displacement of the film medium by content, that background ambiance media that has homogenized our streaming watchlists with filmmaking devoid of style or intent.
My dad raised me on the Hollywood New Wave: Cimino's Deer Hunter, Scorsese's Goodfellas, Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Kubrick's The Shining. Yes, the action blockbuster would return to my local theater every summer like a traveling circus, but it would never threaten the existence of the auteurs, right? In 2022, when the elevated horror genre alone has shouldered the burden of arthouse film and the major studios are working on capeshit franchises that look like Toyota commercials and lack any visual style or artistry, the picture is bleak. That's why, in a funny twist of fate, Michael Bay, the man once held up as an example of vulgar commercialism in moviemaking, was welcomed back to the scene as a much needed popcorn movie auteur when he announced a non-franchised action thriller with style and three charismatic stars.
In many ways, Ambulance (2022) is the height of Bay's stylistic signature. It's a cops and robbers chase movie shot like an early 2000s music video. It considers itself a suspense procedural, like Michael Mann's Heat (1995), yet in typical Bay fashion it favors spectacle over tension and character. In a scene where a greenhorn cop checks out a bank where his crush works, Bay sweeps across the room with an interior drone shot as robber Danny Sharp, played by a wonderfully psychotic Jake Gyllenhaal, walks to greet him. The camera seems to be on the end of a baseball bat as it is swung around the room, this time to show the group of armed bank robbers hiding under the teller's desk just out of view. This is a variation of Bay's famous circular camera move where he uses a telephoto lens to compress space before making the background speed by to achieve the parallax effect, as seen in Armageddon (1998) and Pearl Harbor (2001).
This is some vividly awesome camerawork, yet as Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting argues in "What is Bayhem," Michael Bay designs every shot for maximum visual impact, even when it doesn't fit the scene. This can be seen in a vertigo-inducing shot when a drone swoops down the side of an LA skyscraper to follow an ambulance when a simple establishing wide shot would have been more appropriate. Zhou summarizes this "Bayhem" style:
"the use of movement, composition, and fast editing to create a sense of epic scale. Each individual shot feels huge, but also implies bigger things outside the frame. It stacks multiple layers of movement shot either on a very long lens or a very wide one. It shows you a lot for just a moment and then takes it away. You feel the overall motion, but no grasp of anything concrete.”
While Zhou published that in 2014, the year of Transformers: Age of Extinction, Ambulance fits the bill almost exactly. The rapid cuts of Gyllenhaal and his veteran-gone-outlaw brother, played sensitively by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, shooting up the gang hideout of kingpin Papi leave one awe-inspired but dizzy. Compare this to some of Coppola's blocking and staging and one realizes just how visually incoherent Ambulance is despite its flashy pyrotechnics. In many scenes, it can be impossible to tell where each character is in relation to the others. Film Editor at IndieWire Kate Erbland hilariously wrote, "Every shot looks like it was filmed by a drone that is somehow on coke."
In the piece "An Aesthetic of Excess" in Senses of Cinema, Bruce Bennett traces many of Bay's signature visuals to his 1988 music video for Donny Osmond's "Soldier of Love."
"atmospheric backlighting scattered through dry ice, coloured light and a restricted colour palette, long-lens shots, freeze-frames, glamorous female models and, most notably given the device’s prominence in his feature films, a carousel-like camera that circles continually around the performers."
Like a soda commercial where the drink appears out of nowhere and fizzes up an impossibly huge glass before rotating to show its shiny label, Bay devises scenes which are not very visually legible but which create a world that feels huge and overstated.
In terms of writing, one has to commend Bay's effort to lean into the preposterousness of the plot and have some fun with these actors. In a scene where Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen II air-drum to Christopher Cross' cheesy 80s anthem "Sailing" while evading police, Bay makes it clear he's not interested in a register of realism but something more campy and ludicrously fun. That's why criticizing some of the dialogue in this film from the gold standard of Tarantino or Scorsese misses the point. Yet even being sympathetic to Bay's attempt at camp leaves a lot to be desired when you have to sit through jokes about dog farts and Cheeto dust.
There's a few scenes where he takes stabs at modern Internet humor, like one where two feds, a woke Millenial and a hard-boiled gay veteran, get into a spat:
"Where is that? I don't usually go east of Downtown."
"You realize four million Angelenos live east of Downtown?"
"Sorry. My husband is an environmental attorney. Okay? We like the beach."
"That's like the whitest thing I've ever heard."
"Well I'm white. I can't help it."
"Save it for Oprah, buddy. We got shit going on."
This exchange is a good example of the cringe--inducing broad humor in the movie, lending ammunition to those who criticize Bay for his conceptual superficiality. There are some lines that are just too wooden to overlook and he could have skipped the discussions of "dad" between Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen II where they reminisce over a shared youth we catch glimpses of in a GAP ad montage. A discerning viewer will see right through this tepid attempt to simulate nostalgia and make up for a script that lacks any emotional character development.
But Michael Bay never boasts his ear for dialogue or his ability for sensitive character studies. He's a guy who makes movies for teenage boys ("I make movies for teenage boys. Oh dear, what a crime," Bay told critics in the past). If one is judging him on his self-proclaimed specialty, Ambulance delivers.
Yet online, I've seen numerous tweets arguing that Ambulance is about the failure of American systems and how we have to look out for each other. Pretending Ambulance is an emotionally complex criticism of the American health care system or call center capitalism is very silly. The only time the film engages with a semblance of politics is when it shows protagonist Will Sharp struggling to pay for his wife's experimental surgery before breaking bad like Walter White and resorting to crime: an anti-hero's justifying backstory more than a scene of support for a single-payer system. @ImmigrantFilm points out that it might be Bay's right-wing orientation that holds him back from turning Ambulance into a satire about the absurdity of the militarized police: a movie about how the cops destroy huge portions of LA to chase two robbers.
So let's all enjoy Ambulance for what it is: a wild ride with some great explosions, over-the-top camerawork, and a show-stealing, campy, psychopathic Jake Gyllenhaal. As for a deep human soul or searing critique of American institutions... I'd look elsewhere. 3/5.
P.S. @DanielGorman20 summed it up!