Michael Bay, the director who turned a set of action-figure toys into the “Transformers” franchise — $4.8 billion in grosses, thank you very much — is the movie master of smash crash bash. What you think of “Ambulance” will likely depend on whether you consider that distinction more in the way of high praise or cause for alarm.
The movie is what it is: relentless, shameless, and purely as an exercise in technique almost dementedly skilled. A Bay explosion explodes, a Bay collision collides, and “Ambulance” has both in abundance. For some viewers, the result will be 2 hours and 16 minutes of movie heaven. It might make others want to call for an ambulance. One man’s kineticism is another’s conniption.
Its title to the contrary, “Ambulance” isn’t a medical movie. Instead, it’s a three-fer: a heist/action/chase movie. Say what you will about Bay. The man does not stint. That extends to the fact that “Ambulance,” a remake of a 2005 Danish film, is 56 minutes longer than the original. Those Bay explosions and collisions aren’t just bigger and louder. They last longer, too.
Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are stepbrothers. Danny’s white, and Will’s Black. That’s one difference between them. Another is that Danny is rich — having robbed three dozen banks will do that for a guy — and Will is not. The difference that matters most is that Danny is pathologically crooked (see previous sentence) and Will is A Genuinely Good Guy. When Will agrees to take part in Danny’s plan to knock over a bank for $32 million, it’s only because he needs the money to pay for experimental surgery for his wife.
So that’s the heist part. Since it’s a Michael Bay movie, you already know about the action part. The chase part comes in because bank robberies require getaways. As it happens, the bank that Danny wants to rob is in downtown Los Angeles, so the getaway options are pretty extensive: boulevards, freeways, even the Los Angeles River. Do you remember “Speed” (1994) and O.J. Simpson’s low-speed freeway episode? Bay does. He also remembers the big shoot-out in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995).
(Exam question: Michael Bay and Michael Mann, compare and contrast.)
The getaway entangles Danny and Will with Cam (Eiza González). Or entangles her with them. If Cam isn’t the world’s greatest EMT, she definitely makes it to the medal round. The problem with excelling at a job like that is it doesn’t necessarily win you any popularity contests. “You’re the best paramedic in town,” a colleague tells Cam. “You can keep anyone alive for 20 minutes. But no one wants to be your partner.”
All three leads are fine. Channeling his inner Nicolas Cage, Gyllenhaal is manic and very amusing, usually intentionally. But the charm of his performance does rather throw things off kilter emotionally. In contrast, Abdul-Mateen (”Candyman,” “The Matrix Revolutions”) doubles down on kilteredness, making Will stalwart and upright, or at least as upright as a guy who’s a bank robber can be. González has the tricky task of facing a series of truly overwhelming situations, remaining indomitable throughout, and not seeming like she’s wandered in from a Marvel movie. She pulls it off.
Right, overwhelming situations. All sorts of stuff takes place in, around, above, beside, through, and to the ambulance. This is a movie almost as big on prepositions as it is on verbs. In no particular order, that stuff includes: helicopters, snipers, surgery performed by Zoom, front-seat fisticuffs (while one of the participants is driving), spray paint, a blood transfusion, a through-the-windshield fistfight, driving the wrong way on the freeway (you probably could have predicted that one), a dog who likes Mongolian barbecue, and a lot of semi-automatic gunfire.
Actually, the last one’s inaccurate. Make that lots and lots and, yes, lots of semi-automatic gunfire.
Action is Bay’s thing, but he’s also good at its moviemaking cousin, tension. “How much longer can the two suspects go on?” a TV announcer asks. Good question. One way is Bay’s ability to keep upping the ante on the smash-crash-bash front. Another is an effective, if not especially nuanced, use of humor.
Beside Gyllenhaal’s many throwaway lines (one about the damage done to his cashmere sweater is especially funny), there’s the escalating incredulity of the officer in charge, Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt). He’s the one who owns the dog. When a tech-whiz cop arrives on the scene (a wittily deadpan Olivia Stambouliah), the captain gets to switch roles and play straight man, doing so to good effect.
Monroe wears a University of Southern California cap and sweatshirt. “Ambulance” is actually a four-fer: It’s also an LA movie. The closing credits emphasize the affiliation. The title fades away to leave just the letters “la.” Nice, no? Besides the freeways and river and downtown (there are several views of that splendid limestone pile, the old Los Angeles Times building), we go to LAX, Boyle Heights, and multiple points between. Some of those points are very multiple and head-scratchingly between. The route followed by the title vehicle, at least the route as described and shown throughout the movie, is about as realistic as … well, the rest of “Ambulance.” That said, the reasons for going to a Michael Bay movie do not include geography lessons.
Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Chris Fedak; based on the 2005 Danish film “Ambulancen,” written by Laurits and Lars Andreas Munch-Petersen. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eiza González. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 136 minutes. R (intense violence, bloody images, language throughout)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.