Michael Bay, director of Armageddon, The Rock, the Transformers movies, and that Aaron Burr “Got Milk” commercial from the 90s (probably still his finest work) has, shall we say, a recognizable style. So recognizable in fact, that it even has a name: “Bayhem,” (possibly coined by Bay himself) which UrbanDictionary (in an entry dating to 2007) defines as “The cinematic conceit of blowing shit up on a large scale, in slow motion and (usually) at sunset.”
Bay’s persona has followed the general arc of anyone similarly parody-ready: from initial fame to oversaturation, to the general stink of uncoolness that attaches to anyone or anything with tics familiar enough to be identified and quantified (see: Nicolas Cage, the mullet), followed by brief quiet period followed by the inevitable renaissance that comes when people realize that they’ve missed that person or thing. Someone cool grows an ironic mullet and soon enough, the irony disappears. (Remember how hilarious the idea of anyone having a mustache was in the late aughts?) The tongue-in-cheek aspect of Michael Bay appreciation has been slowly evaporating for at least five years now.
Ambulance might be the earnestness inflection point. Our cinematic era feels analogous to the one Norma Desmond describes in Sunset Boulevard, when she says “it was the pictures that got small.” Michael Bay, with his penchant for explosions and outsized persona, seems like the perfect guy to re-embiggen them.
We don’t really have big movies anymore, only big “properties.” Like glorified NFT schemes, even the biggest movies these days seem more like flashy commercials for that studio’s “IP” (intellectual property). The purpose of Eternals was to raise the value of the Eternals characters much more so than it was to create a huge movie in its own right. As an artistic gesture it feels more like Paris Hilton pumping her Bored Ape on Jimmy Fallon than “cinema.”
In that sense, it’s refreshing to see Bay lending his personal grandiosity to something like Ambulance, the kind of mid-budget ($40 million, reportedly) action blockbuster that filmmakers frequently lament don’t get made anymore. It’s actually a remake of a 2005 Danish movie if you want to get technical, and Bay is determined to make it look like it cost $200 million dollars. It’s got car chases, explosions, and hot people; it’s fairly stupid and very exciting. In many ways, it’s the movie the last Fast/Furious should’ve been. (But couldn’t be, because the Fast/Furious “movies” shoulder the burden of being property).
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Will Sharp, a down-on-his-luck Marine whose wife needs an unnamed surgery he can’t afford. He goes to his adopted brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) for the loan, but instead gets roped into bank robbery that just so happens to be going down later that afternoon. And wouldn’t you know it, they still need a driver. And Will just so happens to be the best driver. Bet you haven’t seen that plot point in a movie before.
The robbery, borrowing heavily from Heat and the 1997 North Hollywood shootout, goes sideways, putting the fleeing Sharp brothers on a collision course with Cam Thompson (Eiza González), a no-nonsense EMT about whom her colleagues say “she can keep anyone alive for 20 minutes but no one wants to be her partner.”
The Sharp brothers end up commandeering Cam’s ambulance (the Cambulance, I call it) on the run from the entire LAPD and eventually, a Fed played by Garret Dillahunt. Imagine if the robbery in Heat had turned into Speed and Michael Bay shot the entire thing like he was trying to make his own version of Uncut Gems and you have something like Ambulance. (With a brief, delightfully weird late second act sojourn into Robert Rodriguez territory).
Yes, Ambulance‘s Sharp brothers — and especially Danny, who Gyllenhaal plays like Bay was three feet away screaming “I need to see more neck vein!” the whole time — keep making poor decisions. Which somehow leads to a shootout with a helicopter, an impromptu surgery, and one wild scene involving what I can only describe as a cholo-built chain gun.
The beauty of Ambulance is that with all that going on, Michael Bay doesn’t have the time to fill space with his usual brand of creakingly stilted improv (I’ve always said that Bay could be our greatest action director if only someone could talk him out of thinking he’s the funny guy). There is one scene where a pair of cops discuss the movie The Rock, famously directed by Michael Bay, but for the most part, Bay has his hands too full trying to sell this ornate script to shoot much that would end up on a blooper reel during the credits.
Ambulance careens breathlessly from one massive set-piece to the next, with nary a CGI alien in sight, and Bay manages it all beautifully, with claustrophobic closeups, amber-tinted pyrotechnics, and a script (by Chris Fedak) that deftly rides the line between just-believably-enough and so-hilariously-stupid-that-you-won’t-care.
In classic Bay fashion, basically all of the non-name actors feel like police and military consultants Bay gifted speaking roles. I used to joke that Bay divides the world into two essential types, sluts and clowns, and in characteristic fashion, all of Ambulance‘s characters either have great hair and chiseled features or a character gimmick obvious from the first instant they appear on screen and hammered home in every subsequent second thereafter. “Randazzo,” for instance, played by Marc Randazzo, was such an Italian-face parody that I was tempted to call the Anti-Italian-American Defamation League.
At this point, certain Bay tics are part of his charm. And by building the story around Abdul-Mateen’s in-over-his-head Marine and Gonzalez’s toughgirl EMT, Bay mostly avoids the momentarily unfashionable “copaganda” upon which he built a substantial portion of his career. You can sense his newfound restraint in the single, brief shot of a fluttering American flag, which in the past would’ve lingered for at least five more seconds. Bay, ever the canny propagandist, seems to have shifted seamlessly into “healthcare workers are the real heroes.” EMTs are the new troops! Look, if it wears boots and requires a uniform, Michael Bay can make it look cool and sexy.
Exploitation has always been Bay’s foremost skill, and in this era when movies have begun to seem chintzy and distinctly unglorious, Bay’s talents as a hype man and product pornographer seem oddly refreshing. If anyone was going to make a mid-budget action movie feel like the biggest, coolest, sexiest thing in the world, it was Michael Bay.