The state of the Hollywood action movie as we know it is depressing. Like watching a high school overachiever become a slacker before your very eyes, save for the odd miracle of a film, action cinema in the States has looked more drab and lethargic than Eeoyre off a row of Xanax. So watching Michael Bay’s AmbuLAnce in IMAX was the equivalent of a straight shot of adrenaline right to the heart.
After being embroiled in five feature-length Hasbro commercials, Bay’s return to form couldn’t have come at a better time. The film follows one chaotic day in the lives of two brothers whose bank heist goes horribly wrong. They’re forced to hijack an ambulance with a dying cop and brave medic inside. Bay’s LA-based action flick is a pulse-pounding ride through the streets of the city that reminds audiences what exactly a movie star is and what a real action movie can look and feel like.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Michael Bay is the king of commercialism. Born of the late-90s era of filmmakers who got their start as directors for ad campaigns, his style is all too identifiable by now: flashy, distasteful, and gorging on the excess of America. While the moral compass of his films may be misguided, there is no debate that his mastery of spectacle is unparalleled. In AmbuLAnce, Bay takes everything from his skillset and cranks it to eleven with a budget ¼ the size of his usual work. Confined, for the most part, to the space of an ambulance barreling down the highways and alleys of Los Angeles, there is a kineticism in every moment, driven by the film’s crazed mantra: “We don’t stop.” As a catchy line, it’s brilliant, but as a look into why exactly Bay is so driven to the brink of excess, it’s almost incisive.
So much of the film and its intent is revealed when you realize that Bay made this out of sheer boredom. During the early days of the pandemic, he was restless and dying just to make something, stating in an Entertainment Weekly interview, “I said to my agent, "God, I just want to do something. I just need to be around people." Because I love to shoot.” So, he cobbled together $75 million and set about on a small-scale action movie with more ambition and sheer ballsiness than nearly every studio tentpole in the last five years. In almost every shot (including but not limited to drone shots chasing cars along bridges and flying up and down the city’s skyscrapers), Bay works with the idiosyncratic environment the city provides and manages to pump out maybe the greatest “LA Movie” in recent years; revitalizing what the Movie Star concept really means is just a bonus.
It’s not hyperbole to say that AmbuLAnce is a movie star vehicle through and through. The dynamite trio of Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eiza Gonzalez goes crazy. The latter two are instantly likable and possess the innate “I Give A Damn About You” quality that action stars of days gone by had to have to even be in the running for one of these things. Yahya has been proving himself to be one of our best movie stars for a few years now, but this is Gonzalez’s first role of real substance, carrying what would be an otherwise forced and corny emotional throughline to the end and succeeds.
Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal turns in maybe his most deranged performance as the pseudo-villain of the piece, going full-Cage in the process. This is a demented, cranked-up-to-the-max-volume-on-a-mountain-of-speed, gonzo performance for the ages, yet he never steals his co-stars’ thunder nor does he try to overshadow any significant elements of the movie. In fact, by the end, the emotional weight of the movie falls to Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, and he carries it effortlessly. The supporting cast is working in typical “Bay Supporting Cast” fashion, throwing out one-liners and angling for the camera, but they all work wonders, especially Garret Dillahunt’s hyper-macho, dog-loving cop on the brothers’ tail.
Praising Michael Bay of all people in 2022 is admittedly ironic considering that this time ten years ago, he was the guy most associated with producing the mindless schlock that’s ruining the zeitgeist, and to an extent, that hasn’t changed. But he does mindless schlock better than anybody today. He almost pioneered the blueprint for it which has since been bastardized by the lowest possible effort versions of what he achieved in the 90s and aughts.
There is no comparison between Bay putting every cent of the budget on screen as he careens through towers and under bridges, blowing up every car and zooming in on every bead of sweat from his stars and the latest edition of the factory line superhero flick and their entirely computer-generated fight sequences that were animated on crunch hours by 15 different animation companies. Bay set the precedent for the mindless buffoonery of action cinema and eventually played right into the franchising of the blockbuster, so there’s some irony in his “everything and the kitchen sink” original extravaganza being beaten out by a Sonic the Hedgehog sequel aimed at children and embraced instead by fully grown adults.
With a few weeks of retrospect, it's apparent to me that no matter how sad it is that AmbuLAnce bombed, there’s something sadistically beautiful about Bay now being the underdog at the box office. The once-king of blockbuster mayhem has fallen victim to his own commercialization of the cineplex. The predator becomes the prey, but the machine will always espouse, just as the movie does: “We don’t stop.”