Producers: Michael Bay, Ian Bryce, Bradley J. Fischer, William Sherak and James Vanderbilt Director: Michael Bay Screenplay: Chris Fedak Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Eiza González, Garrett Dillahunt, Moses Ingram, Jackson White, Cedrick Sanders, Colin Woodell, Keir O’Donnell, A Martinez, Olivia Stambouliah, Jesse Garcia, Wale Folarin, Devan Chandler Long, Victor Gojcaj, Remi Adeleke and Jessica Capshaw Distributor: Universal Pictures
What happens when you take a tight, eighty-minute Danish action movie and turn it over to Michael Bay for an English-language remake? Naturally it turns into a two-hour-plus behemoth of manic mayhem and noise, a cinematic sledgehammer that bludgeons you mercilessly for over two hours. The original “Ambulancen” might have been flawed, but at least it was short; “Ambulance” is certainly flawed, and seems to go on forever.
The basic premise remains intact: two brothers decide to rob a bank, and when the heist goes wrong, they commandeer an ambulance, along with a patient and his attendant, in an effort to get away.
But in the hands of Bay and his screenwriter Chris Fedak (doing his first feature after a slew of TV episodes) it becomes the basis for one of the dumbest movies ever. If it were done tongue-in-cheek, fine; but it’s played with ridiculous seriousness and at dumfounding length, and the result is laughable but hardly funny.
In this scenario, the two brothers are very different. Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a career criminal who’s followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming a notorious bank robber. He and his brother Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) were close as kids, but the latter went straight, joining the Marines, while the former continued his wayward career.
Now Will is back in Los Angeles, with loving wife Amy (Moses Ingram) and an infant son. But he’s jobless, and Amy is ill, and the insurance company refuses to cover the cost of her “experimental” treatment—a predicament reminiscent of Denzel Washington’s in “John Q.” He goes to Danny in hopes of a loan, but Danny instead offers him a high-paying job. He’s assembled a crew to rob a bank of $32 million, and needs one more man, immediately. Will is reluctant to get involved, but in his desperation goes along.
Naturally the heist goes awry. Danny’s been under surveillance by LAPD’s Special Investigation System, and when the operation begins its head Captain Monroe (Garrett Dillahunt) is called to the scene from his day off, bringing his big ol’ dog with him.
The intervention of Monroe and his SWAT team turns the scene into a war zone, and in the horrendous violence callow cop Zach (Jackson White), who’d wormed his way into the closed bank to ask a teller out, is accidentally shot by Will. As the rest of the gang is mowed down, Danny and Will manage to escape by taking over the ambulance that’s arrived to help Zach. Kicking out the driver (Colin Woodell), they make off with Zach and dedicated EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza González), who’s already saved a young girl impaled in a car accident that morning.
What follows is a wild chase through the city’s streets, freeways and water run-off channels as Monroe calls up helicopters and innumerable police vehicles to track and stop the ambulance while Zach’s partner Mark (Cedric Sanders) grimly undertakes his own rescue-and-revenge.
It would be impossible to count all the car crashes, tire screeches, bursts through barricades and blasts of gunfire, all accompanied by reams of pseudo-tough-guy dialogue (most delivered by Dillahunt as the totally obtuse cop) and lots of juvenile, groan-inducing jokes, most connected with movies: one of the gang, played by Devan Long, is named Mel Gibson, and there are dumb cinematic references to earlier flicks, including some of Bay’s. Monroe also gets a kind-of rival in Keir O’Donnell as FBI Agent Anson Clark, a gay man whom he treats like a know-nothing but who just has a prior relationship with Danny and thinks he can “talk him down” (another cliché box checked off), as well as a highly competent electronics expert to keep track of the chase and roll her eyes at his stupidity (Olivia Stambouliah).
All of this–the idiocy of which is exacerbated by Roberto De Angelis’ jittery, hand-held camerawork (complete with ultra-oppressive close-ups) and Pietro Scalia’s hyper ADD-style editing–is pretty much run-of-the-mill Bay overkill, but “Ambulance” goes into surrealistic territory in some of its episodes—like an impromptu surgery-via-zoom by Cam as the ambulance speeds over bumpy terrain at sixty miles per hour (Zach recovers amazingly quickly), or an actual fight between the brothers in the front seat as the vehicle barrels along contentedly.
Still, things remain grounded, comic-book style, until the last act, when Danny calls in help from one of their father’s confederates, gang leader Papi (A Martinez), and the picture moves into full-throated blow-‘em-up mode, with bombs exploding and a machine gun rigged up in a remote-controlled car to mow down a bunch of police. Unfortunately that will lead to a breach between Papi and the brothers, and a spectacular confrontation among the thieves.
But Fedak and Bay still aren’t done. They opt for an ending dripping in ludicrous sentimentality, not to mention pandering, as bad choices get forgiven with a shrug and perpetrators profit from them. In this universe, crime certainly does pay because the motive behind it is pure and an unfair system gets the shaft. This is where Lorne Balfe’s overbearing score goes gluey, of course.
Naturally Bay’s goofily over-the-top style demands equally wacky work from his cast, and the leads respond in kind—especially Gyllenhaal, who’s positively manic, screaming and gesticulating so incessantly that he sometimes drowns out even Balfe’s bombast. Abdul-Mateen has to play at a lower decibel level, because he must elicit audience sympathy for Will’s plight, but there’s no sign of the subtlety of which he’s capable, while González frets and buckles down to her duty as the script requires. No one else in the cast distinguishes himself; they’re all playing cardboard figures with various degrees of embarrassment, and one can only hope the paychecks were good.
More important than the human actors, in any event, are the stunt drivers and FX specialists who give the movie its brainless sound and fury. Their names fill the endless closing credits.
So what might have been a trim and tidy little action thriller is yet another Michael Bay exercise in wretched excess.