Michael Bay’s newest crime thriller is his most exciting since The Rock

Michael Bay makes for an easy punchline, one that in the past he has been more than eager to lean into. He is a bombastic filmmaker who shows no regret for making the kinds of films he’s known for: set-piece driven action fare that use plot mostly as a means towards creating iconic, memorable frames to be absorbed. Even in his most work-for-hire mode, he has an undeniable aesthetic as an auteur that bleeds into all of his work. Whether that maximalist excess is to your liking or not is ultimately going to be a matter of taste.

And it’s easy to forget the early years when Bay was seen as something of a fresh voice in the action genre. After showing immense promise early in his career with the one-two punch of canonical action film The Rock and the brain-dead but immensely enjoyable blue collar sci-fi anthem Armageddon, Bay’s approach was less warmly received in the genres of historical epic, science fiction allegory and serious-faced military action. To say nothing of his increasingly frustrating entries in the Transformers franchises. With the outlier of his 2013 dark satire Pain & Gain, Bay hadn’t made what felt like a genuine passion project for nearly two decades.

Which is why his latest film, Ambulance, feels like such a shot in the arm. In what is easily his best film since The Rock, Ambulance plays to all of Bay’s strengths, not attempting to reinvent his style but rather to evolve it, creating a hyper-kinetic, manic film that is the definition of a film that pushes its foot on the accelerator from the word go and never lets up. Assisted by a bevy of strong performances, a subject matter he is clearly obsessed over shooting and a high-concept action premise that plays to his best strengths, Bay feels energized at the helm of what could be a career-defining outing.

That premise, adapted from a Dutch film, essentially fits on a postcard: when a heist goes wrong, two brothers are forced to take an ambulance, as well as the EMT inside hostage. But the specifics that Chris Febak’s script threads throughout are important. Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, in a star-making performance) is a military vet and Los Angeles native who is struggling to find work and pay his wife’s medical bills. He goes to his professional criminal brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) to ask for a loan, only to get pulled into a score for $36 million against his will.

The heist does eventually go wrong, due to both being ambushed by anticipating police, as well as unpredictable circumstances, namely a rookie cop decided this day to go ask the bank teller he’s been flirting with out on a date. This causes Will and Danny to intersect with Cam Thompson (Eiza Gonzalez), an effective but emotionally distant EMT. After the rookie gets shot, Cam is roped into trying to keep him alive while Will and Danny try to get away.

More than plot, however, this film is driven primarily by vibe. Through the use of his trademark frenetic editing, Bay creates a sense of distorted time, with moment to moment not necessarily following chronological order so much as an emotional high. His version of Los Angeles is in a perpetual moment of sunset, and items are set in the way specifically for cop cars to ram into them. Most thrilling is Bay making full utilization of drone camera technology, creating screaming, impossible shots over the LA skyline, zipping up and down buildings so that each establishing shot itself is driven by movement primarily. The film consciously seems to echo the great LA action films of the past, most specifically Heat and Terminator 2, but is inarguably played with Bay’s visual vocabulary. No one else could have made this film in precisely this way. As Danny yells at one point in perhaps the film’s most exhilarating moment, “We don’t stop.” The film doesn’t either, with the camera either shaking or flying or generally pushing forward. Few films before it have so radically earned the right to be called non-stop action.

The three primary cast members all play into that kinetic energy that the film is pulsing with, screaming and vibrating with energy. Gyllenhaal in particular taps into the panicked, wide-eyed madness of the moment, while Abdul-Mateen is a man who is trying to remain clear-eyed in an impossible situation. Gonzalez is somewhere between the two, clearly unnerved by what is happening around her, but also used to chaotic scenarios and attempting to pull herself together to the best of her ability. The dynamic differences of her having to do intensive medical care in the back of an Ambulance going full speed is just as tense as any chase scene, which is 80% of the world the film lives within.

Supporting them is a bevy of character actor performances that provide a backdrop that continues to build throughout. Chief among them are the always game Garret Dillahunt as Monroe, the police Captain who loves catching bank robbers and his giant Saint Bernard in equal measure, and A Martinez as Papi, a Latin gang leader who Bobby ropes into helping him escape. Everyone is pitched at precisely the level they need to be, calibrated to keep things running at the high octane speed the story requires.

Perhaps the most surprising element of Ambulance is how emotionally resonant it is. All three of the key characters have their own arcs to play out, and Gyllenhal and Abdul-Mateen’s chemistry as adoptive brothers is undeniable, hovering between reckless love and endless frustration. Danny is a destructive force in Will’s life, one that he knows he needs to pull away from, but he feels himself pulled back into his orbit because of their love for each other, and a shared sense of desperation. The film’s twists and turns, which feel genuinely harrowing and unexpected, last until the very last scene of the film, which barrels forward with white-knuckle intensity. As events unfold, or more accurately unravel, Bay takes great care to make sure this story has a human element that never escapes him. For all the untethered drone shots (and there are a lot of them), this is ultimately a story about brothers and about the destructive capability of passion and pride. Thus it is so exciting to see a film that is driven by that sort of passion and singular vision, a director who is reclaiming his title as one of action’s most distinctive visionaries.

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