We know what we’re going to get with a Michael Bay movie, just as sure as we know what we’ll experience at our go-to fast-food joint or waffle house – and in both cases, that means some fleeting moments of admittedly tasty, near-instant gratification accompanied by empty calories, followed by a slightly numb and sinking feeling we should have opted for something more substantial.
From “Armageddon” through “Pearl Harbor,” from the first two “Bad Boys” movies to a quintet of “Transformers” movies, Bay specializes in bombastic and sometimes impressively executed action sequences with the visuals always taking precedence over plot and character development, and you’re sure to see at least a couple of shots of a sun-dappled American flag waving in the breeze while the overwrought score pounds away. Occasionally, Bay will take on something more ambitious and relatively more creative, e.g., “The Island” (2005) or “Pain and Gain” (2013), but he’s reverting to his decades-old playbook in “Ambulance,” with characters who are about as deep as a nearly drained bathtub, an endless flurry of jiggly, hand-held close-ups and swooping long shots, a casually cynical approach to violence and some mostly weak attempts at dark humor. By the last 20 minutes of this 2-hour and 16-minute slog, it felt as if someone was repeatedly tapping a rubber hammer against my temple.
Based on the Danish film “Ambulancen” (which had an efficiently lean running time of just 76 minutes), “Ambulance” doles out the cliches like a cook piling breakfast potatoes on your plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet (are we getting hungry yet?), starting with the opening scene, in which decorated Afghan war veteran Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) gets the bureaucratic runaround as he tries to rustle up the $231,000 needed to pay for experimental cancer surgery for his wife (Moses Ingram). Things are even more dire because they’ve just had a baby, and Will can’t even land a job interview, let alone a job, so there’s your obligatory Good Man Who’s Willing to Resort to Desperate Measures to Save His Family right there.
And how’s this for convenient? Will visits his estranged brother, Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal), on the very day when Danny and his cartoonishly brutish and mostly stupid henchmen are about to pull off a daring daytime heist of some $32 million from a Los Angeles bank. As screenplay contrivance would have it, Danny is a man short – for a supposedly notorious bank robber, he’s not much of a planner – and he needs a driver, and Will can drive ANYTHING, and this is Will’s one chance to take care of his family, so is he in or is he out?
Spoiler alert: He’s in!
Bay stages the heist scene like a second-rate, cover-band version of the bank robbery in “Heat,” with things quickly going sideways as Danny’s dopey goons and dozens of cops engage in a prolonged, high-powered gun battle that results in numerous casualties on both sides. When an ambulance arrives in an adjacent garage where a rookie cop named Zach (Jackson White) has been shot, Danny and Will use this as a way to punch a hole out, with Will taking the wheel, Zach clinging to life and Danny shouting threats and pointing his weapon at the tough but terrified EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza González), who is tasked with tending to Zach while trying to stay alive. At this point, “Ambulance” becomes a 21st-century version of “Speed,” and come to think of it, this entire exercise has the retro-dimwit vibe of a 1990s thriller.
Garret Dillahunt, who looks like a second cousin to Josh Duhamel, quips his way through the role of the battle-tested LAPD Capt. Monroe, and we know this guy’s a real original because he has a giant, flatulent mastiff named Nitro, and he eats a bag of flaming hot snack chips right in the middle of the prolonged pursuit of the ambulance, which results in dozens of cars flying through the air and crashing in slow motion. (When the cops are lured into a trap that results in an even higher body count, Monroe growls, “These sons of bitches are about to have a really bad day!” You tell ’em, Cap.) Keir O’Donnell plays the uptight FBI Agent Anson Clark, and get this: The local cops and the feds don’t get along, that’s something new! (When Monroe learns Clark is from Toledo and thus doesn’t really understand L.A., he calls him “Toledo” because that’s … I don’t know, uninspired.)
Gyllenhaal is an A-lister for a reason, but he gives a one-note, screaming performance here and is less than convincing as an unhinged psychopath who seems to have a death wish. (Gyllenhaal has repeatedly been drawn to these Los Angeles-set crime thrillers, from the brilliant “End of Watch” to the mixed bag that was “Nightcrawler” to the disappointing “The Guilty” to “Ambulance,” and he’s going in the wrong direction, as this is the worst of the lot.) Abdul-Mateen II does what he can with the one-dimensional role of Will, while Gonzalez should be applauded for somehow creating a somewhat believable character who is stuck in an increasingly ludicrous situation, at one point having to dig deep into Zach’s torso to keep his spleen from bursting as a couple of trauma surgeons on a golf course guide her through the procedure via video chat, and no, I’m not making that up. Granted, “Ambulance” is designed as nothing more than a slick and bloody piece of escapism, but the only true escape comes when we finally get the sweet relief of the closing credits.