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" Would you please stop treating me like a victim "
— Ashley Judd, Kiss the Girls

MRQE Top Critic

King Lear

King Lear is easier to appreciate than to like. —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

King Lear mounts his castle for the last time

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With Ambulance, Michael Bay has discovered the thrill of filmmaking with drones and the audience suffers because of it.

The Fast and the Spurious

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal

Let’s start at the end. After more than 130 minutes of mind-numbing mayhem, the end credits run. Fast. It’s not even a traditional scroll; it’s more like a TV show (maybe an old-school episode of Emergency! or Adam-12), wherein the credits are flashed across the screen in a card format that very quickly moves from one set of credits to the next. It’s too quick to even bother trying to read them. It’s unheard of these days for credits to run that briskly and it leaves one thinking surely the intent was to protect the guilty.

Always look at the bright side. In this case, the release of Ambulance is non-scientific evidence the pandemic is truly over. After two years of theatre closures and carefully plotted release schedules that shuffled many movies (including a few Pixar productions) directly to streaming, it’s remarkable this textbook example of moviemaking run amuck has been given a theatrical-exclusive release with the expectation people will pay for the pleasure of the pummeling.

The shame of it is this isn’t even good Michael Bay. When Bay is good, the movie can still be bad, but enjoyably so. In that case, pick any one of Bay’s Transformers movies — except his last entry, Transformers: The Last Knight. That one was unwatchable.

Regardless, this is a toxic, violent thrashing of brain cells.

Attack of the Drones

Ambulance is based on a 2005 Danish movie that ripped through a similar story in a scant 80 minutes; nearly a full hour shorter than this spin set in Los Angeles. Maybe Bay should’ve also checked out Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man (a remake of the French film Le Convoyeur), which travels some of the same terrain, but with much greater dramatic effect.

Ambulance is about two brothers, Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Candyman) and Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal, Zodiac). Yeah. They’re brothers — don’t question it — and their father was a legendary psychopath who was known to commit violent bank robberies back in the 1990s.

The brothers are war veterans. They talk of their ordeals in Kabul. But they’re both desperate back home in Los Angeles. Danny needs to settle a score with a godfather while Will needs to find some money to pay for his child’s experimental surgery that insurance refuses to cover.

Topical. As the movie takes its time — too long — in setting the stage and introducing the characters, there’s the faint hope that maybe Bay actually has something to say. He’s been known to be pro-military and maybe this would be a positive, pro-first responders and pro-law-enforcement escapade. But that hope quickly flies out the window like an out-of-control drone.

Ah. The drones.

Maybe barf bags should be provided in the lobby.

Bay’s discovered a new toy, the drone. And he uses it relentlessly with all sorts of swooping shots scaling up and down buildings and zooming across landscapes, under bridges — virtually anywhere and everywhere. Used sparingly and strategically, it could’ve made an impact. But here it’s incessant and incredibly distracting. The problems continue with the cinematography by Roberto De Angelis, working for the first time in this capacity on a dramatic feature film. When the camera’s not mounted on a drone, it’s being held by somebody who’s apparently suffering from a caffeine overdose. It’s like those TV commercials from the 1990s, with the jittery camera constantly moving during otherwise static conversations; heads get awkwardly cropped out of frame as the perpetual motion desperately tries to make something out of nothing.

Operation!

In fairness, Will is an interesting character and Abdul-Mateen is mighty good. Gyllenhaal continues to be a solid actor, but one with a growing resume of questionable choices. And there’s also Eiza Gonzalez (Baby Driver) as Cam Thompson, a first responder put in the most perilous of life-saving ordeals. She’s good, but by the end of this chaotic production, her makeup alternates between pristine and scuffed-up from one scene to the next.

For that matter, it’s a great cast overall, which makes this crash-and-burn so stunning and frustrating. These actors give it their all, trying to make something out of some painfully weak material and poorly defined, shallow characters. Even the good guys aren’t interesting enough to root for in the face of some truly repugnant baddies.

Many scenes defy logic and lack anything resembling authenticity, but it is worth calling out one bizarrely remarkable sequence in which Cam attempts to remove a bullet from a wounded police officer in the titular ambulance that’s been hijacked by Will and Danny as the ambulance barrels down LA thoroughfares. It involves a Facetime call with two surgeons out on a golf course, a bullet lodged deep in the officer’s belly, a punch to the head of the same police officer, a dying tablet battery, a burst spleen and a hair clip.

It’s grotesque, but effective — even in the thick of the ludicrous scenario. If only Ambulance had the guts to build more of that kind of tension instead of relying on old Bay standbys: lots of bullets, lots of glass and windows (all of which are shattered), lots of blood, lots of car crashes and lots and lots of really stupid people. But kudos on the sound design; Dolby Cinema really pronounces the boom-boom-boom and offers some stellar aural effects.

We Don’t Stop!

Eiza Gonzalez
Eiza Gonzalez

What a mess, but that’s what happens when Bay tries to blend his trademark violence with a newfound sense of wokeness. What an awkward, baffling blend. All the while, the characters here display a remarkable range of questionable morality.

And, of course, there’s Bay’s idea of humor to contend with as well. As the chase grinds on, Danny pulls out some music to calm his nerves and his artist of choice is Christopher Cross. Oh yeah. Then there’s the scene involving couple’s therapy. And the scene with the police captain’s dog. Don’t forget the argument suggesting the culprits need to be caught before rush hour starts.

Ambulance could’ve amounted to something meaningful with this set of characters offering some interesting possibilities. There are themes of abandoned war veterans, a broken insurance system, the uptick in violent crime and the bravery of both police officers and medical first responders who put it all on the line every single day. Surely Bay sees this wreck as some sort of statement, but too much of it comes across as an insult to those who serve as well as to those who are protected.