Apart from the intense collage you expect from Michael Bay—though I did find the drone footage a less inspiring addition to the mix than the low quality go-pro like inserts of Pain & Gain (2013)—the most noticeable thing about Ambulance (2022) is the concessions it makes for these times. Yes, one character calls another a snowflake, but I know that a younger, more spirited Bay would have given the gay cop character (Keir O’Donnell) floppier hands and maybe even a lisp.
A film very much born of the pandemic, Bay was originally just going to produce but took over as director because he was tired of being inside and wanted to shoot something quick (38 days) and cheap ($40 million), and in a way it’s his tribute to essential workers in much the same corny way that Spike Lee’s short New York, New York (2021) was. The third lead is a paramedic (Eiza González)—reportedly the best paramedic—who’s locked in the titular ambulance with two criminal brothers (Jake Gyllenhaal & Yahya Abdul-Mateen) trying to save the life of the cop they shot (Jackson White) and the film ends with a hero shot of her walking away from the hospital at night, its neon lights pouring through the darkness.
Apart from the clear boundaries of the premise, the film’s most inspired and surprisingly dramatic riff on life under Covid is a scene where González has to perform a surgery far above her skill level, with the only guidance from doctors over FaceTime. Although two of those doctors do not seem to be professional actors, dryly reading their lines on a golf course as if Bay had ambushed these random men and told them they’re shooting a scene right now and to read the lines off of the phone screen.
González’s hero shot isn’t the final image though, the music continues to swell, hitting a peak of intensity that holds longer and louder than you think as we cut to a big wide shot of LA. Bay’s affection for the city is evident, he uses the one-long-car-chase premise to shoot as diverse a range of a city as you’ve seen in any movie; there’s even a gesture towards the homeless crisis as a cop chasing a bank robber shoots thoughtlessly into a row of tents.
This might even seem like commentary—if commentary that’s left in the background and moved swiftly on from—and Bay’s love of the militaristic has been pretty dramatically toned down.But there’s still that right-wing trope of mistreating ‘our boys’ that he’s used before; Abdul-Mateen’s character fought in Afghanistan and is constantly referred to as a hero, it’s supposed to be more tragic that a veteran is now reduced to joining in his criminal brother’s schemes to afford surgery for his wife. Though he certainly doesn’t have such great crimes forgiven on that basis as Ed Harris’ did in The Rock (1996), who planned to kill a million people and is half-redeemed by choosing not to.
González’s arc, from emotionally detaching from her patients, not thinking about them as soon as her work is done, to visiting the young girl she saved in the opening, holding her little hand—although the former seems to me more healthy and sustainable an attitude—is well intentioned, I suppose. But of course this paramedic still has to always look beautiful, lips glossed and body tight and toned, though without Bay’s camera ogling her the way it did to many a woman before.
Bay, as per usual, plays the emotional beats so broad, and with such intensity, that they can’t really hold water—that’s why González has the save a child and Abdul-Mateen has to be a veteran, it must be the most heroic and the most tragic—his style is built for the maximalist, often cruel text he’s known for. That’s why Pain & Gain, his film least afraid of it’s own meanness, is also his best. I’d hate to be on the side of the irony bros who enjoy his earlier work’s machismo and sexism under the thinnest of pretexts, a kind of dogmatic auteurism that assumes merely being an auteur is the ultimate virtue, regardless of content and especially regardless of politics.
But it seems this is not what Bay was built for, you cannot simple make his films less mean spirited, you cannot simple transpose more socially more social consciousness into them, the body rejects it, and I don’t think Bay is much committed to it than that. Despite having all the trappings and pleasure of Bay’s direction, for better or for worse, Ambulance is his least pure and least honest film.