Jake Gyllenhaal can play nice guys, but he has such a peculiar talent for playing intense, soulful characters who turn out to be full-blown wackos that it ought to be a special acting category. Whether he’s scheming to get ahead in the world of breaking gory news coverage (Nightcrawler), double-crossing Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Far from Home, or conversing with full-grown rabbit hallucinations (Donnie Darko), Gyllenhaal does not care for half measures.
In Michael Bay’s surprisingly taut thriller Ambulance, he plays Danny Sharp, a fast-talking operator who convinces his adopted brother William (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to go in on an “easy” bank heist. Of course, anyone who’s ever watched a bank heist unfold onscreen knows “easy” is not on the cards: within half an hour, Gyllenhaal’s smooth operator goes off-the-rails, hijacking an ambulance to use as a getaway vehicle, and enlisting jaded EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza González) to save the cop who’s accidentally been shot in the heist.
And because this is Los Angeles, you know cops there are going to get very upset when one of their own is gunned down.
Ambulance is a satisfying cross between Speed (the classic, never-slow-down car chase thriller) and Heat, with a little Training Day thrown in for good measure. It’s almost criminal how fun it is to watch a big, loud, blow-‘em-up Michael Bay film on a big screen after two years of diminished viewing options. (I know: people are attached to their home screens, but there’s still a case to be made that cinema is not “cinema” unless it’s blown up to engulfing proportions.)
From the opening credits, where the two letters embedded in the title— LA—set this drama in a particular milieu, we know that this will be a love letter to crime films set in the City of Angels. The extended downtown heist shootout between cops, robbers, and SIS (Special Investigation Section, a kind of surveillance unit of the LAPD) is a direct homage to Michael Mann’s Heat, while the convergence of Feds, cops, gangsters, and innocents caught in the crossfire recalls Tony Scott’s Hollywood-obsessed True Romance (penned by Quentin Tarantino).
Ambulance is not the most logically sound thriller ever, but its premise is a grabber: two brothers, one gone bad and the other a former soldier, drive around very fast in an ambulance that doubles as both getaway vehicle and mobile hospital. Center it around a young, gorgeous EMT with her own (briefly alluded to) background issues who takes saving lives very personally, and you’ve got a firecracker action thriller.
Abdul-Mateen II is equally riveting as the good brother, and the film is a master class in Michael Bay American cinematic iconography: young kids shown in flash-cut vintage footage establish the bond between these two “brothers,” one white, the other African-American; “cultural” shots of LA remind us both of the diversity and racial tensions between cops and ethnic minorities (the Latin crew helping out Gyllenhaal is so clearly meant to suggest murderous MS-13 gangs, it’s almost like a Fox News segment).
But this is entertainment, and for two hours, you can just surrender to the tiny character details and nuggets of dialogue that make a Bay movie the clear heir to the Tony Scott/Simpson/Bruckheimer Bad Boys mantle. Everything about Bay’s LA is hyper-blown-up to absolutely surrealistic dimensions, and every bit of it is, on some level, recognizably real: LA is a funky, dangerous, pop art-splashed city, always has been, and Ambulance takes you for the ride you’ve probably, on some small, cinema-obsessed level, been missing for a few locked-down years.
Gyllenhaal plays the type of bank robber who’s more concerned about getting his cashmere sweater ruined during the bank heist, which surely tells us that his priorities are just wack; while Abdul-Mateen is the noble war vet desperately trying to find a job so his young daughter can get her very expensive medical treatments; and González plays the type of no-nonsense professional health frontliner who will allow her new rookie partner exactly “one question a day” about her personal life. (Naturally, he asks her: “Do you have a boyfriend?”)
These are all familiar cinematic types and tropes, but thrown together in one careening vehicle, Ambulance works way better than it ever deserves to. Yes, things blow up, as they tend to do in any Michael Bay movie. Yes, it’s crazy to believe that any dying cop would survive the amount of grueling backseat surgery and crazy driving involved here. But throw logic out the window along the LA Freeway, and let this keyed-up action thriller get your ticker going again.
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Ambulance is now showing in cinemas.